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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Not with a Bang" by Damon Knight

First appeared in F&SF. Reprinted by Isaac Asimov, Groff Conklin, Terry Carr, Alfred Hitchcock, Edward L. Ferman, Annette Pelz McComas, Isaac Asimov, and Martin H. Greenberg.

A plague smites Earth.  The last man on Earth, Rolf Smith, courts the last girl, Louise Oliver, who is something of religious prude ("I will not live with you in sin.").  She forces him to court her and respect her with the old rules.  She has saved him once before by helping him out of the rigidity brought on by the plague. He makes sweet promises, and she finally relents.

[Spoiler]  He goes to prep himself in the men's bathroom, thinking of all nasty ways he'll eventually treat her when... he locks up. Presumably, Louise is too much of a prude to go into the men's room.

Rolf Smith's name says it all.  He's a renowned wolf [Rolf] (backed up by Knight's description of him as a wolf) but a common, ordinary, everyday variety [Smith].  The hypocrisy of his words and actions is revealed early on:
"He leaned forward, trying to capture the attention of those fishlike eyes for a second. 'Darling,' he said, 'I respect your views naturally."
His body action feigns interest [leaned forward] and he says he respects her views, but his thoughts insult her [fishlike eyes] which also plays in a predatory sense as well--wolf vs. fish.  His thoughts show he in no way respects her or her views.

Asimov points out the double entendre in the title.  (See "Eripmav" for an example of a bad pun.)  This works because it flows in all meanings.  One needn't pull up at just the fact that Rolf doesn't get any (many will probably cheer at this, even if it means the end of all humanity).  Rather you run with that to the almost nursery-rhyme-like ending of T.S. Eliot's poem:

"This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper." [Emphasis mine from Eliot's "The Hollow Men"]

There's something extremely vulgar and irredeemably miserable about the last man in the world being a mendacious hypocrite.  Yet we somehow feel sorry for both.  Knowing the end of Eliot's poem accentuates this.

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