Meet Ruslan, the acerbic last survivor of the human race, which has chosen to eradicate itself throughout the galaxy by engineering a virus without thinking that maybe engineering a cure would’ve been a good idea too. After spending decades wandering his homeworld alone, Ruslan is discovered by a benevolent alien race called the Myssari, who take him back to their planet to live out his final years as their honoured guest and much-loved research project. The Mysarri treat Ruslan very well, but the last human grows restless; he longs for true companionship, so he strikes a reluctant bargain with his benefactors. If they help him search the universe for the lost planet Earth, where he might find another survivor (hopefully female), he promises (and this is where the “reluctant” part comes in) to let them use his genetic material in a somewhat misguided scheme to restart the human race. (I mean why, for God’s sake – we’re a danger to everything everywhere.)
So let’s get the first question out the way: is the book any good?
Short answer: Hell, yes.
Okay, next question: why?
Alan Dean Foster has created a universe-spanning epic around one man, with a supporting cast of identical aliens who are nevertheless as individual as they are numerous. The characterisations are deep, not just at an individual level, but with the two main civilisations as a whole: even the most enlightened species quarrel politely, knowing that same fate that took the human race awaits them unless they favour logic above avarice. Perhaps that’s why they’re so bent on resurrecting the humanity: closer study may prevent the same thing happening to them further down the line.
The book travels over many years and visits many worlds; the timeline occasionally feels a little compressed, but nothing that really detracted from my enjoyment.
The dialogue on all sides is brilliant, moving the story along at a fairly sedate pace which gives the story a feel of exploration rather than being an adrenaline-fuelled thrill-ride. There are certainly moments that have you on the edge of your seat, but mostly this is a fascinating look into the far future, and the failure of man to temper its greed.
This isn’t a mass dive into speculative future technology either; Dean Foster keeps the technology and the environment at a level that doesn’t interrupt the story, and yet still gives you poise to stop and think, “Well, what about that then?”
Case in point: teleportation. The author describes the process as basically destroying your body and recreating it somewhere else in line of sight. It’s interesting that enlightened races don’t really care that what they’re essentially doing is killing themselves and then being replaced with an exact copy a few kilometres away. Is the soul a real thing, or is the mind really just a collection of electrical responses that can be stored and recreated? I lean towards the latter, but then no one’s ever asked me to teleport …
And there’s more, but it’s a bit of a spoiler!
I’m in two minds about the ending; I enjoyed reading it, and it was brilliantly done, but I wasn’t sure if it really rang true … but at the same time, I’m not sure I would’ve like an alternative ending any better. It’s that kind of book: lots of possibilities, all of them great.
Aannnyway, this is possibly one of the best science-fiction books I’ve read in the past ten years. Well worth spending some time with. Thoroughly recommended.