!!!!!SPOILERS!!!!LEAVE!!!!SPOILERS!!!!YOU SHOULDN'T BE HERE ANYWAY!!!SPOILERS!!!!LEAVE!!!!
This novel is a very refreshing twist on a science fiction trope that has become too exploited. It really isn't fair to genre-label this work as apocalyptic, as it is used here as a brilliant and apropos closing devise. I have problems with the reading, but plot is not one of them. It's more in terms of information dissemination, aka the 3rd-person to 1st-person shifts, the incongruous time jumps, and some verbal confetti in the form of internet comment strings. Since it seems to be quite popular, I'm getting used to mixing narrations these days. But when the characters' identifications change in the process, well, it becomes confusing and a waste of time to back pedal for connecting, say, a nickname like Exorcist when he's Randy in another iteration.(1) I think I follow the author's logic: we're introduced to them not as people but labels to be inveigled, but it's awkward.
Now with that out of my system, I can say The Last One's concept is astounding. Its execution is a step below, although not nearly enough to take you out of this compelling read.
12 people have been chosen by a TV production company to participate in a Survivor-type show. They are somewhere in an East Coast forest, and the Challenges are mixed from single struggles to all-inclusive Clue hunts to group gropes in competition. The idea is to contaminate any loyalties between contestants. No one remains friend or foe. No one can trust any one. And, as if the governors are using a Myers-Briggs personality chart, they are encouraged to call each other by nicknames based on hastily-conceived assessments. Tracker. Zoo. Exorcist. Waitress. Air Force. Banker. Black Doctor. Rancher. Carpenter Chick. Cheerleader Boy. Engineer. Biology. But the underlying idea behind the show is not a competition through survival; it's not even conceived as a race, really. It is, with these deceptions, "to break the contestants"(p.5). This is what those smug and misanthropic studio executives think their audience wants. The irony is what they get.
Our perception of the world is largely based upon a tacit agreement with other humans that it is, in fact, reality as acknowledged by our senses, mainly through visualization. We are in this empirical grip from birth to death. But we can, for a sustainable moment in time, be deceived that what we are experiencing is tangibly real. It can be like a sleight-of-hand parlor game, or it can be something with more serious, potential consequences to do us harm.
For trustworthiness beyond our personal attentions, we rely on second-hand experiences as valid. This is where things get dicey, because anything out of our sensory realm can easily become opinion; that is, an endorsement of agendas ultimately dispassionate to our own considerations. Take, for instance, the historic formula guiding network television—and now re-imagened as pop-up ads on the internet—where the audience does not finance the content it wants, but is paid for by "sponsors" whose docket is to sell their products. And we sit calmly by while these non-contextual barkings interrupt the flow of what we're here to watch. But what is worse is that financing influences content, just as yesteryear's Motion Picture Production Code—citing a moral highground—forbade a film to show miscegenation, or, equally insulting, any scene of kissing that pressed lips together for over 3 seconds!
But The Last One is not about censorship in non-personal presentations; it rides the rails of deception, deceit, and out-and-out lying that alters these contestants' perception of reality. It is also about how we—as an audience—encourage this for more and more sexy and savage entertainment, with little concern of the consequences to our society.
With the premise at hand, it becomes obvious relatively soon that this "reality show" will have serious trouble considering its namesake, In The Dark. After all, the opening sentence is, "the first one on the production team to die will be the editor"(p.3). Progressing through the set-up tribulations, our heroine Zoo—the only character to get her own 1st-person account—is attacked by a rabid coyote. She beats it to death with a stick, then later, when she's calmed down, realizes it "was animatronic . . . a farce"(p.67). She gives us our first conclusive insight: "the world in which I now move is a deliberate human perversion of nature's beauty. I cannot forget this"(p.68). Deeper into the trials, Zoo's definitive approach will deceive her by missing obvious flags that the contest is no longer relevant to her survival. At this point, she has even broken her glasses which leads to fuzzy, visual interpretations. While the production crew and participants have been chasing artifice in the woods, a pandemic has swept through the area, killing almost everyone and evacuating who is left. Ravaged buildings, rotting bodies, mis-reading of signs: Zoo is bewildered but believes it is the continuing gauntlet the TV crew has created. She possibly mis-reads the actions of two adult brothers who seem to want to help. It ends in one maimed, one dead. As the true reality of disease and death usurp pretension in a horrific way, Zoo manages to exorcize her demons of self-deception and win her own inner challenges.
There are many tacks through this page turner involving perception and memory, artifice and reality. I have chosen, admittedly, a pet peev. We all spend an inordinate amount of time with disembodied communication systems that convey or circulate our thoughts, messages, and dreams. Telephones. Radio.Television. The Internet. Social media. Photography & Cinema. Tape Recorders. Books and the Kindle. To name a few. We need to be reminded that these technologies are perceptual extensions that alter the launch of our original thoughts or messages in very subtle ways. This is not nefarious or evil or specifically surreptitious; they are, after all, mere delivery mechanisms. But, with disseminating information, they can become autonomous and cagey, convincing you—sometimes subliminly—of an altered reality of their making.
Think of the well-worn phrase, "brought to you by the makers of . . ." From who? Stephen Spielberg? Joseph Goebbells? Stephen Hawking? When you see as a "sticker" the words, "New! Improved!" on a box of something, do you believe the makers have really changed the product inside in any significant way? Is "climate change" interchangeable with "global warming", or is one a deceit of the other?