The Last Human is more than a quirky sci-fi comedy-adventure. Deep questions lurk beneath the romp. What is the nature of free will? What is our place in the universe? What is the purpose of existence on a cosmic scale? Are all power structures by their nature exploitative, and what does it mean to live under these structures?
Sarya and her companions grapple with these questions in different ways based on their unique backgrounds and experiences. Zack Jordan does an excellent job of slowly shifting these perspectives throughout the narrative, and of showing these changes through action.
This is going to be a thoughts-about-life style reflection, not so much a craft breakdown reflection. Cool? Cool.
Standard warning: The book contains many more exciting elements than this article could possibly contain, but mild spoilers will follow.
A Galaxy-Wide Caste System:
In The Last Human, networked civilization, spanning millions of species across the galaxy, is organized by intelligence tier. Every species, every creature, is given a score of 1-5. Each step represents a twelvefold increase in intelligence. Any intelligence under 1.8 is “sub-legal” – basically, a tool or a slave. Many, but not all, are artificial intelligences, designed to perform a function. Interestingly, the most common intelligence designation in the galaxy is 1.79 (99.44% of the way to having rights… so close). Are you with me so far?
Towards, the beginning of the book, it is explained that sub-legal AIs are programmed with a driving purpose, a primary function. They derive pleasure from fulfilling that function. Your super-smart AI vacuum cleaner loves to suck up dirt. We see our main character Sarya (as a human, a “2”) manipulate these AIs to make her life easier – she tricks shuttles into diverting to give her a lift around the station, for example. She gets what she wants, the AI gets what it wants. No harm done, right?
To be as vaguely specific as possible, the rest of the book is a Russian nesting doll of higher intelligences controlling lower intelligences. It raises the question – do any of the characters have free will? They appear to make choices, but when all those choices follow nudges from forces beyond their comprehension, planning further ahead than they could possibly guess… it makes you wonder, in Jordan’s universe, what’s the point of it all? Do individual choices matter?
The Responsibility of Freedom
There comes a point where the protagonists reject the paradigm of control and wrestle their lives back into their own hands… and a galaxy so used to perfect control devolves into chaos. The physically strong immediately dominate the weak and competing groups violently struggle for resources. As a microcosm of this, an angry sidekick nearly kills Sarya, because he can. There is nobody and nothing to stop him, beyond his own self-regulation.
Now, obviously, Angry Sidekick is wrong. Nobody’s condoning murder.
But the question of how valuable “freedom” is as an ultimate virtue is worth exploring. Every civilized, moral culture must draw the line between the rights of the individual to exercise their free will, to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, and what is best for the group – for the other. In a super reductivist sense, this is what all laws are. My rights end where yours begin. If I don’t want just anyone to do anything they want to me, I shouldn’t do just anything I want to anybody else.
What is the best use of my freedom, in a world where I could do anything, but shouldn’t? I’m not a philosopher, but here are a few thoughts:
Don’t be a jerk. If you find that in most conflicts you want you are demanding your “rights” at the expense of others’ wellbeing… maybe reflect on why that is.
Find joy in the little things. It can be overwhelming to think of your individual life in the context of every life that ever was or will be lived, but we all have our Sphere of influence. Small acts of kindness matter to those who receive them.
Help others do the same. Multiply your light.