“The Last” by Hannah Jameson (2019)

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“Nadia once told me that she was kept awake at night by the idea that she would read about the end of the world on a phone notification.”

I never learn. Why did I think it was a good idea to read another dystopia during the rise of an international virus that the media are touting as the scariest thing ever? And why did I think that the same book would be a sensible thing to read while staying in a hotel alone all weekend, when it’s also a thriller set in a hotel? Suffice to say, my imagination ran away with me and I did very little actual reading in the hotel, although my podcast consumption shot up. It’s over now, so it’s time to review The Last.

While Jon Keller is staying in a remote hotel in Switzerland, the world ends. Major cities across the planet are hit by nuclear weapons and the Internet quickly goes down. Many people flee from the hotel, hoping to make it somewhere safe, but a handful stay behind. Jon is one of twenty survivors now holed up in the hotel. As a history professor in his previous life, he takes it upon himself to make a record of the end of the world. Fifty days after the bombs dropped, he finds a body.

Convinced that one of the group is a murderer, Jon sets about interviewing the other survivors, not all of whom want to join in with his theorising. As the days pass, suspicion grows and Jon finds that the vital clues he needs are going missing. He doesn’t know who he can trust, and tensions flare as the final pocket of survivors work out how they’re going to stay alive in the long term. But things get worse when they get evidence that they might not be the last people after all. They might not even be the only people in the hotel…

This is one of the tensest books I have read in a very long time. The end of the world is tragically believable, although we never find out exactly who began the bombings, it never seems to matter. The stakes are high and feel real, and you are wrapped up in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the hotel, with no idea what is happening outside. The events of the first day of the end of the world are revisited a few times, as Jon and others remember more and more about it. It’s almost funny when one of the fleeing guests deadpans, “Scotland’s gone”. Is this how we’ll be if it ever happens? The use of social media comes into play as well, from the opening line. For most of the novel, the characters don’t have Internet access, but when they do get some they learn that some people did indeed live-tweet the apocalypse.

The characters are a rich and varied bunch, with some getting a lot of page time and others just shining for a cameo, based on how much Jon speaks to them. He is, however, an unreliable narrator, consumed with toothache and a sense of self-importance. You can’t fault his drive regarding his desire to solve the murder, but there’s another part of you that wonders if he’s just going mad. There’s a sense of insanity about him and an obsession that sees him doing anything to distract from thinking about his wife and children. At first you believe him, but even as a reader you begin to doubt him as a narrator – is all of this just in his head? The others, particularly student Tomi, doctor Tania and head of hotel security Dylan, are shown only through Jon’s eyes, so we don’t know what prejudices he’s putting on to them. We see them as he interprets them, so we can’t know for sure if they really are acting in the way he says, or if it’s just paranoia. From what we do see, however, many of them do seem to be acting suspiciously, but the suspense keeps on ratcheting up and characters motivations seem to change day by day.

I’ve said this before, but I think I need to say it again. Until the news perks up and it doesn’t feel like we’re living in the end days, I really need to stop reading dystopian fiction, especially when it’s this visceral and real. An amazing book, but consumed by a bruised mind. I don’t want to put anyone off, because it’s a brilliant read, but take care.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

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“Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”

Kurt was not the only famous Vonnegut sibling. His brother, Bernard, was a successful atmospheric scientist who discovered that silver iodine could be used in cloud seeding to produce rain and snow. Weather manipulation feels like something that belongs to the realm of superhero tales, or science fiction, but it’s genuinely happening now, with clouds seeded to produce rain for crops, or even to disperse fog and hail around airports. I mention this not because I’ve suddenly become a science blog, but simply because this technology almost certainly influenced Kurt Vonnegut in the writing of Cat’s Cradle.

Our narrator, Jonah (or John, depending which name you want to give him) begins the novel by telling us he was writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. He becomes fascinated by Dr Felix Hoenikker, the now-deceased scientist who was one of the founding fathers of the weapon and visits the man’s hometown to learn more. He discovers that Hoenikker had potentially been working on something called ice-nine, a chemical that would freeze any moisture it touched. Little to his former associates know, he was successful, and the chemical has found its way into the hands of his three eccentric children.

Drawn to the sun-drenched island of San Lorenzo in search of answers, the narrator meets these children, now grown, as well as getting to grips with San Lorenzo itself, a place where the religion of Bokononism is both forbidden on pain of death and practiced by the entire population. The narrator finds his original goal vanishing as now he has to deal with the very real threats of being declared President of San Lorenzo, and ice-nine being released into the world, bringing about the apocalypse.

Like everything Vonnegut wrote, the book is written with the driest humour imaginable, but relies heavily on truths of the human condition that we try not to think about in too much detail. Here, he tackles environmental collapse, the nature of pure research, free will, nuclear destruction, and humanity’s reliance on technology, dealing with them all with his trademark balancing act of humour and horror. The greatest contribution to society from this book, however, comes from the religion of Bokononism, which has the central tenet that everything is a lie, so one must live by the lies that make one “brave and kind and healthy and happy”. We get many interesting words and concepts from the religion, including karass (a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner), wampeter (the central theme or purpose of a karass), zah-mah-ki-bo (inevitable destiny) and of course boko-maru (the supreme act of worship which involves pressing the soles of your feet to those of another).

I’ve read Vonnegut a few times now, and every time I find him more and more bizarre. That’s not really a complaint. No one else writes like him and is unlikely to ever do so, and he has a way, much like Douglas Coupland, of making us look at ourselves and the world we’ve created and start asking questions about why things are the way they are. As J. G. Ballard said, “Vonnegut looked the world straight in the eye and never flinched.” As with all the truly great books about science fiction concepts, the characters humanity still shines through, and they feel real, despite the insanity and fantasy going on around them. They fully exist in their world, and you believe in the story, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.

A great little read, and one that still burns with relevance.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

“Ape And Essence” by Aldous Huxley (1948)

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ape“It was the day of Gandhi’s assassination; but on Calvary the sightseers were more interested in the contents of their picnic baskets than in the possible significance of the, after all, rather commonplace event they had turned out to witness.”

Aldous Huxley is almost certainly best remembered for his dystopian novel Brave New World, but he churned out several books on his lifetime. I confess though that until recently I couldn’t have named another one. I stumbled upon Ape and Essence a few weeks ago, received it for my birthday yesterday, and finished it today. It’s a short one, but interesting and engaging. It all begins with a man called William Tallis.

Tallis is a scriptwriter, and when two Hollywood writers find a copy of his film script, the titular Ape and Essence, in a pile of scripts ready to be destroyed, they are intrigued and decide to seek him out, only to find that they are too late – Tallis is dead. This is all we know of these characters, as they merely serve as a framing device for the rest of the novel which is actually the film’s script, presented without annotations, footnotes or edits.

Tallis’s story takes place in 2108, a century after the planet was destroyed by nuclear weapons in the Third World War. Our heroes are the crew of the Canterbury, a ship carrying the New Zealand Rediscovery Expedition. New Zealand, it turns out, was just about the only country to survive the war as, due to their remote location, no one ever thought them worth nuking. The ship arrives on the coast of what was once California. Botanist and mother’s boy, Dr Alfred Poole, encounters some of the natives, a tribe of humans who believe that the destruction was the fault of the Devil, whom they call Belial. They now live in a society where sex it outlawed, except on one day a year for breeding purposes, women are seen only as vessels for children, and any baby born with deformities (which is desperately common thanks to all the radiation in the atmosphere) is killed in a religious ceremony. Poole is soon caught up in their activities, but when he falls for one of the tribes women, he begins to hatch a plan.

The title of the novel comes from the vignettes that crop up in Tallis’s script. The film would apparently have featured several surreal moments where baboons are pictured as the dominant race, with scientists like Einstein and Pasteur kept on chains as mascots and pets. At first I thought that Huxley was introducing us to a Planet of the Apes scenario, and perhaps inspiration was taken from here for that film, but the scenes exist simply to show us that we humans are just as primitive and violent as the animals we claim to be beneath us. All societies will, after reaching a certain level of power and arrogance, destroy themselves. There are even suggestions that this new civilization that has built up will go on to do the same again to itself.

It’s primarily a satire of the way that humans continue to conduct war and kill off our own kind for, often, superficial reasons. Huxley had of course lived through both World Wars, so knew from experience how violent and evil our species can be. While not one of his more famous works, and containing a definite thread of pessimism throughout, it’s an interesting look at a world that, like all good dystopian novels, feels impossible and yet all too real.

“Worst. Person. Ever.” by Douglas Coupland (2013)

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Oh look. A book about you.

Oh look. A book about you.

“Like you, I consider myself a reasonable enough citizen.”

If you’ve been coming to this blog for a while, you may recall that through most of 2014 and early 2015 I was working my way through the back catalogue of Douglas Coupland for a second time, having not read them in a few years. This is his newest book that I was saving up until the end and have now got around to it for the first time.

In it, Coupland seems to have set himself the challenge of producing the most horrendous protagonist imaginable. In Worst. Person. Ever. we meet Raymond Gunt (aptly named) who is perhaps the most intolerable, vile, racist, nasty, cruel, malicious, sexist, egocentric bastard who has ever walked the face of the Earth. He is a cameraman down on his luck, but he is saved by his ex-wife, who is similarly horrific, who gets him a job working on a Survivor-style reality show on the remote Pacific islands of Kiribati.

Unable to believe his luck, entrusted with finding his own slave personal assistant (as it turns out, in the form of homeless ex-paramedic Neal) and convinced that Kiribati will be home to many nubile young women desperate to throw themselves at him, Gunt packs and sets off to the airport.

But unfortunately for Gunt, everything quickly goes wrong and as the next couple of weeks progress, he taunts a man to death, suffers several allergy-based comas, endures arrest at least three times and accidentally becomes involved with the beginning of a nuclear war. He’s now stuck on Kiribati with no possessions, livid sunburn and his ex-wife while the world around him falls apart. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke…

Gunt is, as mentioned, unforgivably horrible, but somehow it’s not quite possible to hate him. I think this is partly down to the fact that he’s so utterly cartoonish in his horror that you don’t really believe that someone like this could live, and partly down to the fact that he always gets exactly what he deserves. For any decent protagonist, you’d feel pity when he’s being forced to perform the “Angry Dance” from Billy Elliott against his will, or having to sit next to a morbidly obese corpse on a longhaul flight across the United States, but it seems just and right, here. He delights in being malicious and rude, and all the while remains utterly convinced that he is a decent, normal person and that the universe is conspiring against him to make his life a living hell, unable to see that he’s causing most of his own problems.

He selects Neal as his assistant because he is homeless and will probably do exactly what Gunt says, but another layer of humour is added when it turns out that once he’s been shaved and scrubbed, Neal is hugely attractive, intelligent, charming and loved by everyone he encounters. He is the perfect foil, effortlessly being everything that Gunt wants to be.

The usual Coupland tropes are all here; there’s hints at the end of the world, huge numbers of brand names mentioned, and smart little asides, in this case dealing with companies, songs and locations mentioned that might not translate to an international audience. Even these start off reading like Wikipedia entries and slowly become more sarcastic and rude as the novel progresses.

You don’t want good things to happen to Gunt – I would have been annoyed if he’d reached the end happy – but it’s not possible to quite hate him in the way one hates, say, Dolores Umbridge or Holden Caulfield. Coupland is smart enough to give us an anti-hero we can enjoy watching bring about his own end, because watching someone unpleasant destroy themselves is somehow all the more satisfying.