Read March 2020 Recommended for fans of mindbending sci-fi ★ ★ ★
The Last Human is an intriguing sci-fi debut that has a serious case of over-reach. When I began it, I knew nothing except the blurb and that it knocked my friend Geoff’s mind sideways, and I looked forward to the experience. I would agree in that the first third was riveting, the second third interesting, although completely different, and the remaining section a bit too esoteric for my tastes.
One of the initial catchy concepts is the interplay of adopted culture between Shenya the Widow, “a void-cold killer,” and Sarya, the Daughter. The opening scene of Sarya essentially throwing a temper tantrum before a tour is perfection, conveying the species differences, introducing the reader to the pervasive Network, and anchoring it in very familiar emotion.
“Her daughter glares at the floor without answering. Shenya the Widow narrowly restrains a click of approval. On the one blade, this is a Widow rage–a towering and explosive wrath–and it is beautiful. One spends so much energy attempting to install traditional values in a young and coalescing mind, and it is always rewarding to see effort yield results. But on another blade, well… insolence is insolence, is it not?”
As the book progresses, Sarya becomes obsessed with finding the last members of Humanity, and takes a number of twists in that journey. I would say philosophically, it remains the journey of a young/new adult person; a quest that is understood only in terms that are limited by learning and experience.
The book is divided into five ‘tiers,’ each following a different development in her journey. However, the idea of the tier designation paralleling her personal growth doesn’t fit well, and it feels contrived to forcing a philosophical plot. To elaborate without spoilers, tiers are supposed to be tied to intelligence, though there isn’t always great consensus on what ‘intelligence’ is. For the story purpose, “just remember that each tier multiplies the previous by twelve. For example, a two is approximately twelve times as intelligent as a one, a three is one hundred-forty-times as a one, and so on.” Tiers are divided into 1 to 6, tier one being baseline ‘pre-culture sentient beings’ that are above wildlife but not citizens, and sixth tier being a semi-theoretical possibility. So Sarya’s growth/challenges in each section sort of follow the tier rankings, but only awkwardly, and at the expense of coherence in plot.
The first three tiers were amazing: I was astounded at the world-building, at the dark culture clash between Human and Widow, and at the ragtag crew escaping the Watchtower station. However, as the story segued into Tier Four, it veered out of control and felt like a different story altogether, one I was much less interested in. Side characters were abandoned. Concrete plot became about metaphysical debates. I found Sarya’s entrance into the great debate of freedom somewhat simplistic, especially when she reached ‘Tier 5,’ and realized she may have been a pawn of the Network all along. </spoiler> I appreciate that Jordan was trying to raise meta issues on agency and cooperation, but it was all so <i>forced</i> and simplistic. Truly, at the level of a young person.
It’s an amazing debut, but might be too inconsistent a story to find a fan niche. On the other hand, the big sci-fi greats do it all the time, so why shouldn’t Jordan? It might very well appeal to fans of Stephenson and Reynolds. Five stars for the beginning, two for the last third; we’ll average it out to three stars.
My thanks to Netgalley and Random House-Ballantine for an advance reader copy.