Genre: Speculative fiction
A week into the filming of a new Survivor-esque reality tv series, a virus spreads across the US, wiping out a large percentage of the population. The show’s contestants are out on an extended Solo Challenge when the sickness takes hold. Sam, or Zoo as the show’s producers call her, wakes after a bout of illness she believes she caught as a result of failing to boil water before drinking it. When her camera crew fails to show, she’s not concerned; she knows the woods are rigged with hidden cameras. The animal that attacks her in the night is clearly animatronic, and the bodies she finds are merely props. Although, she has to admit that the production crew have seriously upped their game. Even still, she has no trouble identifying the Clues designed to lead her through the challenge, and introducing a young boy who calls himself Brennan as both a new character and her undercover replacement camera crew? Genius.
But why can’t Sam bring herself to accept the reality of her situation and how long can she make the illusion last?
I thought the premise of The Last One (Ballantine Books, Jul. 2016) was intriguing (although I was a little sceptical as where Olivia would take it), and the publishers have recommended it for fans of Station Eleven, which I loved, so I was keen to give it a go.
First impressions? The Last One is nothing like Station Eleven. The only thing these two books have in common is a disease apocalypse. Even then, in The Last One, it’s not a real apocalypse. The infection is limited to parts of the US. Stylistically and thematically, they’re very different books and won’t necessarily appeal to the same readers.
I found the early chapters of The Last One compelling and suspenseful, but my interest began to flag as the story progressed. The narrative moves back and forth in time with the chapters alternating between the early days of filming the reality show and Sam journeying through the woods and abandoned towns after the outbreak, thinking she’s still on a Solo Challenge. The filming chapters are engaging as the reader gets all the drama of the show, plus a backstage pass, and there’s action and minor conflict aplenty if only to prove how constructed and unreal such productions are. But Sam’s solo chapters drag. I kept waiting for Something To Happen, but very little does. Even after Sam meets Brennan, she refuses to interact with him unless it’s strictly necessary and for much of the story they don’t share much beyond small talk. This juxtaposition is kind of the point—life doesn’t segue neatly from major plot point to major plot point. However, if I’d wanted to be reminded of that, I probably would have done the vacuuming or the grocery shopping or my taxes rather than read a novel.
In fact, Sam’s solo chapters in which she and Brennan walk from town to town have a Godot-esque vibe in that they are deliberately dull and aimless with the characters waiting for something that’s clearly never going to eventuate. There’s a fair bit of narration about faith and our need to believe that someone is in control, whether it be God or TV producers. But of course, unbeknown to Sam, the producers are long dead. Sam clings to the illusion that what she’s experiencing is all part of the reality show and that the producers are trying to push her to breaking point. That she persists in this belief long after it should be evident that something is wrong raises the point of how willing we are to see what we want to see rather than what is, and how unwilling we are to question the status quo.
Sam is clearly traumatised by her experiences, and the reader can sympathise with her reluctance to accept the reality of her situation. However, Olivia’s broader point seems to be that people, in general, are like Sam—eager to place our faith in illusions rather than face a harder truth. For me, this is too black and white. Too cynical. People’s relationship with faith, be it religious or otherwise, is more complex than that.
And herein lies my key criticism of The Last One. It’s a story that relies heavily on ideas but the ideas aren’t all that new or nuanced. Here in Australia, with the new season of The Bachelor underway and many viewers tuning in merely to enjoy Rosie Recaps all the more, do we still need to be informed that reality tv doesn’t *actually* reflect reality? That it is, in fact, highly constructed for maximum drama? (Side note: if you aren’t keeping up with Rosie Waterland’s recaps of what she lovingly refers to as the Sparkly Hunger Games of Death, you, my friend, are missing out.) Are we so gullible as to place blind faith in the media? Are we willfully ignorant? I like to think most of us are smarter than that.
I also wasn’t a huge fan of the ending. Without giving too much away, it’s one of those open endings that leaves the reader to draw their own conclusion, and the conclusion you arrive at says something about whether you’re the kind of person who has faith or not, and whether you’re a cup half full or half empty thinker. Cue book club discussion. If I’d read The Lst One ten years ago, I probably would have found it Deep, but the older I get, the more resistant I am to the notion that people can be neatly divided into one camp or another. I want fiction that explores the grey areas, and while I found the book well-written, I wanted a more thorough interrogation of the ideas Olivia sets out to explore.
Thank you to Ballantine Books for providing a copy of The Last One in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up seven critical issues and twenty-four advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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