Book review: The Last Human by Zack Jordan

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

If you take a look at the vast majority of sci-fi tales, humanity is everywhere … and in multitudinous profusion.

Oft times we are the leading light of the universe, other times reviled but we are always there, somewhere, Terrans in the mix who make the galaxy go round.

But Jack Jordan’s The Last Human people are nowhere to be seen.

Oh, there are millions of other species, of all shapes, colours, form and cultural disposition, on their homeworlds or on massive space stations known as Blackwaters that, rather impressively, encircle entire stars and have 4 trillion spaceships waiting to dock at any one time (just remember that the next time you are, post COVID-19, stuck in traffic) … but no people.

NOT … A … ONE.

Although like just about everything, that’s not strictly speaking true.

Sarya the Daughter, resident of the Watertower station which spends its massively days scooping H2O from the rings of a gas giant, is technically a human, the last she is told, of a fearsomely dangerous race who rampaged their way across the known worlds, killing billions, before they were stopped in a rout that led to their much-welcomed genocide.

With that kind of history, it’s no surprise that Sarya keeps an exceedingly low profile, her loving and protective adoptive mother Shenya the Window, part of an insectoid warrior race who are known for their vicious efficiency in battle, passing her off as a race known as the Spaal.

“She encircles her daughter in a gleaming, clicking embrace, rests the flat of a blade against that fragile face, and flicks her mandibles twice in an expression of love. She draws closer, her gleaming, faceted eyes nearly touching skin. ‘If anyone ever finds out what you are—‘

‘I know,’ says her daughter with a sigh. ‘You don’t want to lose me.’ (P. 9)

Sarya, whose life opportunities are limited because of her shadowy place in the grand humanity-free scheme of things, has no idea why her race is so feared and reviled.

Even mentioning the word “human” is entire to set a room of people, or a station as it turns out, on edge, everyone to tentacle-dangling being ready to do what’s needed to eradicate any last vestiges of a people who haven’t saved the galaxy Federation-style so much as doomed it to paranoia and whispered, fearful glances over the shoulder.

It’s not an ideal way to live granted but Sarya does what she can, resentful like any teenager about her lot in life, but accepting at least that this is as good as it going to get.

Then a bounty hunter turns up one day, eager to get her in its avaricious claws and suddenly her world is upended and she discovers that perhaps humanity isn’t so dead after all.

The Last Human is a brilliantly clever novel that combines some deliciously tantalising elements of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a great deal of philosophical rumination, action, adventure, mystery and history and a revolving game of “Who the hell is telling the truth?”

That description may make this highly-engaging novel seem like a messy mixed bag indeed but it is anything but, with Jordan expertly and with a thoughtful storyteller’s eye, taking us on a journey with Sarya as she finds out her world is bigger, much bigger, than she could ever have imagined.

Zack Jordan (image courtesy Inkwell Management)

Quite how much bigger becomes plain when she encounters two sprawling opposing players in a vast, twisted game of cosmic chess, one which involves all kinds of untruths, manipulation and a sense that whatever she’s been told about her people, it may not be the whole story.

Or even the correct one.

Depending on who’s talking, humanity are evil murderers or they are hard done-by pawns or they’re bad but contained or harmless and imprisoned; take your pick, Sarya encounters it all as her head pretty much literally explodes (just why makes for one of the most luminously transportive and highly imaginative passages in the book also brimming with some very smart, adventurous ideas) and she has to cope with experiences way beyond anything that ever came across her path in the relatively safe confines of the Watertower space station.

What makes The Last Human such a compelling read beyond a wildly imaginative, galaxy-spanning narrative and the folding in and consideration of really big existential issues, is how grounded Jordan has made Sarya who, is after all, dealing with some pretty fantastical stuff.

It would do anyone’s head in and Sarya is no exception as she is at turns overwhelmed and resolute and tenacious, but every step of the way her responses feeling deeply, believing human.

“Somewhere in Blackstar, in a darkened Visitors’ Gallery, a Human body clenches its fists. Hot tears well in its eyes. They are fury and awe, dread and wonder—blended and superheated. They are the distilled rage of a mind constructed of millions. Sarya pays attention to her biological body just long enough to shake its head angrily and flick those tears on long trajectories through the darkness. She flexes her fingers, where she always wished she had blades, and millions of intelligences feel a touch of something they will never comprehend.” (P. 327)

This is important because at the end of the day, The Last Human is an exploration from competing points of view of what it is like to be human – are we simply violent creatures with no redemptive features or poorly misunderstood free thinkers who faced up to an aggressor with an independent mind of their own and paid the great price?

More critically for Sarya, who has spent her life repressing any thought of her humanity, lest she give herself away and be killed on the spot (such is the universe’s hatred for beleaguered Homo Sapiens), what it does mean for her to be part of the universe’s legendary Big Bad and does she want to find out if her species survives in some remnant population out in the far reaches of space as has been suggested?

Her authentic, very human reactions to what are big questions in anyone’s book inform The Last Human (especially when we see her capacity for self-sacrifice, compassion and selfless friendship begin to emerge and be expressed) which goes to big and expansive and intellectually dense places without once feeling like it’s weighing its whipsmart narrative down with overly-introspective, ruminative baggage.

Zack Jordan’s debut novel is a treat on every front – compelling characters, big ideas, relatable execution, action and thoughtfulness in equal measure and an emotional resonance that may get a little fuzzy around the edges at times but which is never less than affecting.

Sarya is, after all, the supposed last human alive, and as such the considerable weight of our history, Earthbound and galactic falls on her shoulders, an onerous challenge that might prove too much for some but which Sarya, with some understandable stumbles and emotional setbacks that make you glad that if we down to just one person, that it’s her that is standing in the gap and giving us another chance, maybe, possibly, at fulfilling our always great but many times flawed potential.

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