Human only pawn in game of life: The Last Human, by Zack Jordan
By Adam Sell
The Bot Book Review is an occasional series of short reviews of robot-themed books as written by HUMAN team members.
One of my favorite “this couldn’t get made today” movies is Blazing Saddles. It’s arguably Mel Brooks’ best film (though not my favorite of his - that’s History of the World, Part I), and it contains many of the most quotable single lines in the Brooks repertoire:
“...through the Vatican?”
“I didn’t get a harumph out of you!”
“Where the white women at?”
And the one that lent itself to the title of this post, “Mongo only pawn in game of life”. The line popped into my head as I reflected on The Last Human by Zack Jordan, the subject of this month’s Bot Book Review. And that’s because the crux of the story focuses on humanity’s role in a massive galactic civilization. As an avowed space opera dork, a story centering on a heavily populated and intelligent galaxy in which humans are only a part is a surefire way to grab my attention.
What The Last Human (and Mass Effect, at least early on) did particularly well was undermine the engrained 18th-century-translated-to-a-galactic-era belief that humanity is inherently the greatest species around. Jordan relies in part on our base assumption that humanity must have manifest destinied itself into a position of dominance. And there’s a kernel of truth to that, exposed halfway through the narrative: we—humanity—did in fact rise up and take over far more of the galaxy than we were entitled to. What flips the script is that were were “uplifted”, offered technology beyond our comprehension, and sent out into the galactic ocean not understanding how each stroke of the oars disrupted the status quo for millions upon millions of species living peacefully without us.
That’s where Mongo comes in. That uplifting of humanity, that casting of what Agent Smith in The Matrix described as a human “virus” onto the universe writ large, was a chess move in a match far greater than the reader or our species can understand.
For context, the galaxy is managed and sustained by a force called The Network, which serves both as a governmental organization, communication platform, and literal artificial living being, as we discover halfway through the story. And The Network is in a constant, galaxy-wide struggle against a hivemind-style creature hellbent on creating chaos and selling it to Sarya, our protagonist, as freedom. Humanity, uplifted by the hivemind, has been eradicated as it was too successful at its manifest destiny’ing, threatening the balance The Network has forged. As a result, Sarya is, as the book’s title suggests, the last human in existence. In fact, she’s had to hide her species identity her whole life because of the reputation humanity has gotten for destruction.
Piled on top of this is the intelligence ranking system The Network fosters as a way of standardizing species’ ability to collaborate. Sarya’s declared species clocks in at a level below that of the powers that control the universe, and the artificial intelligences that aid organic life and operate much of the machinery of the universe clock in even lower.
So all at once, you’ve got this book serving as an allegory for manifest destiny, the queer experience, eugenics, human (and other sentient) rights, and self-determination, all set in the context of a galactic struggle between two superintelligent beings, both of which are attempting to use the galaxy’s last human to destroy the other.
Numerous Goodreads reviews delve into how the book gets egregiously philosophical in the second half, and they’re not wrong. Sarya’s story takes a back seat to a lot of navel-gazing about free will and predestination with the backdrop of hiveminds and artificial intelligence. It didn’t quite lose me, but I did find myself looking forward to the more action-centric phases of the narrative.
I think The Last Human would make for an extremely compelling setting for a video game. But then again, I didn’t hate Mass Effect: Andromeda the way almost everybody else did, so maybe I’m just jonesing for another spin on the Normandy.
The Last Human
By Zack Jordan
Bot Book Review Rating: 4/5 stars