Synopsis: Sarya is the galaxy’s worst nightmare: a Human. But most days, she doesn’t feel like the most terrifying creature in the galaxy. No, most days, she’s got other things on her mind. Like hiding her identity among the hundreds of alien species roaming the corridors of Watertower Station. Or making sure her adoptive mother doesn’t casually eviscerate one of their neighbours. Again.
And most days, she can almost accept that she’ll never know the truth about why humanity was deemed too dangerous to exist, or whether she really is – impossibly – the lone survivors of a species destroyed a millennium ago. That is, until an encounter with a bounty hunter leaves her life and her perspective shattered.
Thrown into the universe at the helm of a stolen ship, Sarya begins to uncover an impossible truth. Humanity’s death and her own existence might simply be two moves in a demented cosmic game, one that might offer the thing she wants most in the universe – a second chance for herself, and one for humanity.
The Last Human takes place in the far future, where a super-intelligence known as the Network connects all living things – both organic and robotic – together in an augmented reality. Intellect is a valued commodity in this universe and inhabitants are graded into tiers, with sub-legal intelligences reduced to menial tasks such as sanitation stations. With each new tier, that species attains a level of understanding almost incomprehensible to previous tiers – with hive-minds and seemingly god-like intelligences occupying those higher levels. The book itself is grouped into chapters and tiers, and the direction of the story becomes more dense and conceptual as readers progress through these tiers, reflecting the lead character’s journey as she gains greater understanding and awareness of the world around her. I must admit that I did struggle with the scale of the novel as events expanded beyond traditional boundaries of reality and into the metaphysical.
As a debut novel, The Last Human is extremely self-assured and Zack Jordan does a great job at world-building, establishing the Network through exposition and ‘user-guides’ inserted between chapters. The idea of augmented reality implants that incorporates text chat, emoticons and ‘helper intelligences’ into our daily life doesn’t seem too far-fetched and I think we are definitely heading in that direction in the next few decades. Jordan succeeds in making his last human, Sarya the Daughter, into a likable protagonist for audiences to identify with, and she anchors some of the more abstract concepts with her emotional weight. I really enjoyed the set-up of the last human in existence raised in secret by an alien arachnid, and I was surprised that Jordan didn’t spend more time with that status-quo before literally blowing things up. In fact, The Last Human frequently subverts expectations and propels its lead character into a variety of situations – the events of the novel could easily have been paced out over a few books. It felt like Jordan had lots of really innovative ideas and I would have loved to have seen some of them given more air to breathe.
My favourite aspect of the novel was the relationship between Sarya and her adoptive mother, Shenya the Widow, and while it felt cut short after the first act of the novel – it did get readdressed later on through flashbacks. Part of me was hoping for some resolution to this story-arc and it would have been satisfying for Sarya to somehow confront her adoptive mother once she found out the truth about her origins. It often felt like the central plot involving the Network and the Observer – two high-tier intelligences locked in battle – interrupted the natural flow of the novel and so characters like Mer, Sandy and Roche seemed under-developed, which is a shame as they were ripe with potential. Again, it felt like Jordan was subverting the traditional format of a rag-tag team of oddities coming together to embark on a quest by instead having the characters be pawns of a greater game. The novel certainly did feel like it transitioned to a different plane of existence with each new tier, sweeping pieces off of the game board and restacking them in new positions to continue the story. While it did result in a fresh and exciting pace, it left me thinking that some of the supporting characters were not given enough prominence.
The Last Human is a very clever book, and Zack Jordan does his best to balance the scale between the micro and the macro, focusing on character development alongside galaxy-altering cataclysmic events. Much like how Sarya felt overwhelmed by the scale of the Blackstar station, I found myself equally as overwhelmed when the story begun to question the rules of reality. While I might not have always been on the same page as Jordan, I understood the general concepts introduced and how the cast of characters had been manipulated by the higher-tier intelligences. I loved how this book continually blind-sided me, and the shifting sands of morality resulted in difficulty determining who the villain of the piece was. As a debut novel, The Last Human stands out for its amazing world-building and complex narrative that rewards perseverance to deliver a simply mind-bending odyssey through space.