Review by Shalon Sims
Amulet Books, Hachette Book Group, October 2019
262 pages, hardcover, $21.99 CAD, 978-1-419-73691-9
Ages 8-10, Grades 3-5
Middle Grade, Science Fiction
Binary was especially helpful on that first day.
The world was so much more complicated than it seemed in my programming. It was impossible to define where human civilization ended and ours began.
Binary, on the other hand…
Binary made perfect sense.
To remind myself of this, I developed a little trick right then/there. A way to focus my mind.
I counted to a million.
In my head.
It took me 0.4 seconds.
XR935 is a twelve-year-old robot with feelings, parents, and a job installing solar panels. Although each day is pretty much the same as the next, there’s one part of life that doesn’t fit so neatly into XR’s robot brain: the ruins of humanity. Abandoned cars, crumbling houses, and deserted shopping malls make XR anxious. Humans, XR’s been told, were greedy, barbaric, wasteful, and highly illogical. That’s why they were exterminated. Otherwise, XR’s world is clean and orderly. Robots live in peace and the earth and its animals are thriving with those pesky humans gone.
So nothing has prepared XR for the fateful day when it meets Emma, the very last human on earth. As XR learns that Emma isn’t a selfish, dangerous being, but rather a kind and thoughtful one, XR begins to doubt the protocol that says Emma should be exterminated. When XR goes against its programming, a whole new world of possibilities opens up for not only XR, but for all of robotkind.
Although XR is the protagonist, the heart of the story lies with Emma, a twelve-year-old girl who leaves her underground bunker to find medicine for her parents. Emma’s never seen daylight, eaten an apple, or heard anything nice about robots. She’s just as shocked as XR when their friendship blossoms.
The story is fast-paced, with plenty of action and adventure that pull the reader along, while engaging in a critical discourse we don’t often find in middle grade writing. Some fairly deep and potentially disturbing topics are covered, such as the extinction of humanity, and fear of the ‘other,’ but done so in a way that’s accessible and humorous. For example, at one point Emma takes XR to a derelict mall and dresses him up in a silly outfit. While the scene is funny, you can’t help thinking about who the clothing was originally intended for.
Having read widely in middle grade science fiction—such as the very similar middle grade novel The Wild Robot by Piers Torday which features a robot who wakes up on a deserted island and befriends the animals there in order to survive—I would give this book a solid B+. There is humour, some beautiful prose, and some touching moments between Emma and XR. On the other hand, the robot voice was too stiff and “robotic,” strangely enough. I wanted more of Emma in this story, and felt the best bits were when we see her through XR’s eyes. Having said that, although writing from a robot’s point of view is inherently challenging, I think there is a lot of value for readers in this critical perspective.
In closing, I would recommend The Last Human for teachers, parents and librarians searching for a novel suitable for their reluctant readers, as the story and language are very easy to read, and there are some illustrations.
Shalon Sims is a writer and teacher candidate at UBC. She writes middle grade and young adult science fiction, and hopes to teach those same ages when she becomes a teacher. Visit her at shalonsims.com and learning2grow.org.