CO(S)MIC YA SPACE OPERA
THE LAST HUMAN is a new science fiction novel by Zack Jordan. A great pleasure to read, this book synthesizes a lot of influences and several genres of SF. It combines the sense of wonder of a big idea space opera, the thrilling adventures and realisations of a cosmic young adult coming of age story, with the whimsical humour of post-Douglas Adams jaunt through a bio-culturally diverse galaxy.
The novel is very pleasant to read, and the plot is very engaging. (I read it over two days) and it’s difficult to tear yourself away from it, as the intrigue and the frequent reveals, twists, and reversals are well conducted.
AMBITION: TIERS FOR FEARS
The novel is based on a brilliant (but not unprecedented) idea: to make intelligence and its different degrees an integral part of the construction of the world (world building) and not only the structure of the personality (characterization). The lower tiers usually have no idea what is going on, and the higher one climbs the tiers the more god-like the entity’s understanding and power.
EXECUTION: the conceit of higher intelligences
Nevertheless, the execution does not fully rise to the height of this ambitious idea. The conception of a hierarchy of tiers of intelligence is interesting, it is an important theme of SF (for example Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, The Marching Morons by Cyril Kornbluth, or Understand by Ted Chiang). Zack Jordan makes an original contribution to this theme of intelligence/stupidity. However, the description of the thought processes of tiers higher than the human level often leaves something to be desired. Zack Jordan is at his best on this conceit (in both senses) of higher intelligence when he shows it at work in the production of seeming luck and coincidence as part of the general manipulation of lower tier intelligences.
YA: YOUNG ADULT (or Young Arthropod)?
It’s certainly a coming of age story, but is it really Young Adult? Admittedly, the heroine, Sarya the Daughter, is a young adult, the adoptive daughter of a gigantic spider foster-mother, Shenya the Widow (one may note that the names of the first two characters we meet end in “ya”). We see Sarya grow intellectually and morally, as she progress in her understanding of her world and its background. The story begins as in many YA novels with the heroine to be, Sarya the Daughter, on the point of having to decide on her future profession and of being stuck for life with her unsatisfactory (and unfair!) corresponding social status.
THE ANXIETY OF (THE HUMOUR OF) INFLUENCE
For me, the answer to the question of whether THE LAST HUMAN is basically another YA dystopian novel, or whether it merely contains elements of this type of story alongside those of many other types, is related to the appreciation of humour that permeates much of his style. A close affinity for the works of H2G2 by Douglas Adams is omnipresent, but, as this comparison shows, this type of humour is not necessarily reserved for “young” literature. One can also think of DIMENSION OF MIRACLES by Robert Sheckley, where the hero gets tired of meeting so many quasi-divine entities, repetitiously awe-inspiring and overwhelming in their superiority, and ends up becoming quite jaded about them.
The novel is interesting in that it does not begin with, or develop into, the realisation that one is living in a dystopia as in so many YA SF novels (or, more likely, series), nor does it plunge us into a utopia. The final realisation (“final”, awaiting a probable second volume) is that Sarya is living in an in-between society, which one could call a “meso-topia”.
So the novel is a real pleasure to read. I hesitated for too long before finally deciding to read it, convinced by this review (in French): https://lecultedapophis.com/2020/03/30/the-last-human-zack-jordan/
(Note: there have been some mixed reactions to the novel, but it only disappoints if one considers that a partial awkwardness in execution overshadows the grand ambition of the design.
Note: one can find a video of the author reading the whole first chapter of THE LAST HUMAN here.