Black Holes and Parallel Universes: Science Fiction Books Genre Lifespan of a Reader Reading Themes Young Adult (YA) Literature

The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick

"Everybody has a story," he insists."There are things about your life that are specific only to you. Secret things you know."


ALA Best Book for Young Adults

It was the title that caught my eye, plus the seemingly fast-paced plot as I begin reading the first chapter. I am not really deeply into futuristic novels, although I have had my share of a few. As I was reading the book, I was actually reminded of novels such as Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and even our once-book-of-the-month for Gathering Books, The Giver.

The portrait of the future as painted by Philbrick here is very gray and bleak. It talks of a life after The Big Shake (supposedly a huge earthquake that messed up just about everything in the planet, necessitating a rebuilding and a restructuring of the world as we know it).

In this world, humans are neatly subdivided into those who are termed as proovs or the genetically improved humans; the normals who are forbidden to enter the gates of Eden (a veritable paradise where the proovs are situated), and those who are deefs (humans who are born with a genetic defect). Normally, I don’t get overly excited about new terminologies that I have to grow accustomed to in order for me to understand the writer’s narrative. Yet somehow, Philbrick made it sound so colloquial and so endearingly familiar that it doesn’t sound too sci-fi-ish.

The book’s strength lies in the building of three-dimensional and well-developed characters in the person of Spaz, a boy who suffers from epilepsy; the proov girl, Lanaya, whose ostensibly-imprudent behavior which could be easily dismissed as a thrill-seeking, risk-taking, and highly reckless conduct – is actually goal-directed and carefully considered; and of course the old gummy Ryter who insists on writing down everything that he experiences; and the feral boy, orphaned at birth, forced to fend for himself, whose first word was Chox, to refer to the chocolate bar given him by Spaz.

Very similar to The Giver, each family unit is composed of a son and a daughter, not biologically or genetically related to the parents or ‘contributors’. The story revolves around Spaz’s attempts to save his ‘sister’ Bean after finding out that she is near death given her blood disease. It is, by and large, an adventure tale, with a maiden fair in need of saving; and an unimproved, genetically defective, accidental hero who rises up to the occasion to save the day, and inevitably change the world.

The story is disturbing since it speaks of a time when books are no longer read, since all everyone needs to do is to shoot up images in their heads through what is known as mind probes. The possibility of people getting extremely addicted to this is very high (calling PSP addicts and DOTA aficionados) given that it takes you to a fantastical world where everything is exciting and beautiful. The parallelisms to what is happening to our present-day world are, needless to say, quite unsettling. It is sad that the world outside of Eden is filled with gangsters carefully guarding their own respective turfs: there’s Mongo the Magnificent’s lair with his Monkey boys; The White Widow Lotti also known as the Vandal Queen guarded noisily by her gang of noisy bike riders; Vida Bleek and his stealthy Furies, guarding his underground world; and not to forget Billy Bizmo’s Bully Bangers, the “latch” where Spaz was supposedly banished into. The reason behind this, in addition to Billy Bizmo’s attempts to take Spaz under his wing would only be revealed in a nice twist in the tale as found in the end.

Hence, the world outside of Eden, dominated by warring gangsters, is gray, violent, smog-filled, and downright miserable. There is no color blue. Nor green. Reminds me of The Giver’s sequel Gathering Blue. So heartbreaking how Spaz felt when he first walked inside Eden:

Spaz: What’s the blue stuff? Is that the, um, what did you call it, ‘charged air’?
Lanaya: That’s the sky, silly. The sky is blue.
Spaz: The sky is gray. Everybody knows that.
Lanaya: In the Urb, because of all the smog. In eden the sky is blue and the ground is green.
I figure she’s pulling my leg. Ground is dirt or concrete, everybody knows that. I figure in Eden the concrete won’t be cracked and the dirt won’t stink, but why would everything be painted green? It doesn’t make sense.

I suppose the book is eerie because it has elements of truth in it that you can see at the present time and makes one imagine what kind of world would be left for our children’s grandchildren and so on and so forth. A world where exciting events come in the form of needles injected straight into one’s brain or pulse, and where books could only be found in decrepit ramshackles known formerly as libraries.

Highly recommended for children aged 9-15. Perfect for philosophical discussions with teenagers; may also be good for Science teachers or English teachers who would like to discuss utopia, dystopia, alternative forms of existence, and environmental issues.

The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick

Amazon | Book Depository

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

4 comments on “The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick

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