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The Last Human
by Zack Jordan
Del Rey, $27.00, 426pp
Published: March 2020

This is one of the most ambitious storylines I’ve read in a very long time.  I tried to find out if this is a debut book, which I suspect it is; but couldn’t confirm it.  The story is set in a huge, multi-galaxied universe with more species than Babylon 5.  Sarya is, possibly, the last living human in a universe that fears and despises Humans more than anything.  Most living beings don’t even know why they fear and despise Humans; they’ve become the boogeyman.  And Sarya has spent her whole short life pretending to be something not a human.  Her adoptive mother has done all she can to impress upon the small human that no one should ever know her true species.  This was surprisingly easy to do since no other living being has ever seen a Human; but it’s a lonely, terrifying existence for a little girl being raised by one of the most dangerous creatures in the known universe, a Widow.

The most frustrating thing Sarya had to deal with was convincing people that she was intelligent enough to hold a decent job.  All species are ranked by intelligence and her listed species, selected by her mother, has a very low intelligence quotient.  So…no job prospects and everyone thinks she’s an idiot.  But she is the Daughter of a Widow, a title earned by her when she was yet a child, and she just might be a force-to-be-reckoned-with.

Everything changes the day a high-tier intelligence appeared on her home Station and clearly stated that it knew exactly what and who she was; and if she wanted to find other Humans she should meet with it.  But Sarya’s Widow instincts told her true: it was not to be trusted.  Her mother died saving Sarya but left the girl her memories; memories that later informed Sarya of exactly how and when her beloved adoptive mother acquired her; memories that shook Sarya to her core and challenged all she believed she knew of herself and Mother.  But that knowledge soon paled in comparison to what Sarya experienced as she learned more about how the universe was managed.

All civilized species in the universe are governed (although that isn’t a very good descriptor, managed is probably better) by the Network.  Think of the Internet on a universe-wide scale that keeps everyone safe and productive.  As new species are encountered, they are offered a place within the Network with really, really big incentives like FTL drives and instant access to all data from all species.  Few species would turn down an offer like that but it has been known to happen.  And when it does, that species is then “quarantined” to continue its existence confined to its own solar system and forbidden to develop certain technologies…ever.  It might happen to a certain contentious species who were reluctant to accept restrictions on their behavior and felt they’d be better off making their own way in the universe.  And this species might then arouse a particular response from the Network wishing to preserve a certain status-quo causing said species to be…disciplined.  After which such species would then enter the annals of mythology when no one alive remembered their existence.  With one small exception…

Now life within the Network is actually a pretty peaceful and secure existence; there’s little to complain of.  One of Sarya’s biggest complaints was that Mother didn’t allow her to have a Network implant; her only access to the Network was through an actual physical device which was a poor substitute to the rich experience of those actually networked in.  The day she got her implant was the most amazing revelation of her life…up to that point.  But when Sarya finally got a look “behind the curtain” and began to understand the true nature of the Network, all those concerns became so insignificant.  And this is the meat of the story:  the Network.

This is a sneaky and clever take on what our perceptions of God would be in a technology-rich, data-infused universe.  How many times have we heard the analogy that any sufficiently advanced technology would seem to be magic to those unable to understand?  And would we then “worship” that which controls our lives and gives us manna?  Jordan even throws in the great Deceiver and poor Sarya ends up in the unenviable position of having to choose which one to believe in; which one will free the universe; and which one will save her own species.  Trust is hard to come by when you don’t even understand the stakes.

This was a really wild ride but not an easy read.  The prose tended, at times, to be a bit dense and there were moments when I was as confused as Sarya.  But the structure held and the plot delivered.  The characters were probably the weakest link in that, other than Sarya, we didn’t really come to know any of the others.  There were small moments I felt connected to a couple other characters but the author didn’t allow us enough time.  I enjoyed the mental exercise and the philosophical questions but it isn’t a story that I could enjoy a second time.  I will, I think, be interested to see what else Mr. Jordan can provide.  ~~  Catherine Book

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