Book Review: The Last One by Alexandra Oliva
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Ballantine (July 12, 2016)
Length: 304 pages
The Last One is a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller about the world in shambles. There’s also a big-budget nationally televised survival reality show, with almost no lead time between filming and airing, starring twelve competitors. Only one of them can win.
Some elements of this story may sound familiar to the avid sci-fi and fantasy reader, but debut Alexandra Oliva offers a fresh twist on the end-of-the-world scenario which immediately drew me to her novel. Imagine being a contestant on a Survivor-type reality show, in a remote part of the country with no communication with the rest of the world when a very real disaster strikes. As a devastating outbreak wipes out a large chunk of the planet in just a matter of days, you’re still currently trekking through the woods by yourself on a Solo Challenge, unaware that all your friends and family back home are probably dead. Instead, your full attention is fixated on trying to survive and outlast your fellow contestants, because that’s the only way you’ll win the one million dollars. Even now, you think, hidden cameras are probably everywhere capturing your every move. And the wily show producers have already proven they would do anything for ratings, using cheap tricks and props in an attempt to throw the competitors off their game. You can’t trust anything you see, anything you hear—not when anything can be a hidden challenge or scripted part of the show.
All this is going through Zoo’s mind as she stumbles out of the woods upon car wrecks, abandoned stores, and empty towns. As she tries to make sense of the horror and ruin she sees, the lines between reality and reality TV are blurred beyond recognition. For all she knows, the game is still on.
Zoo is not her real name, of course. She and the other eleven contestants are given nicknames by the show creators and viewers, all based on their professions and stereotypes. For example, our protagonist was designated “Zoo” because of her love of animals and her teaching job at a nature and science center. Her main competition is a man dubbed “Tracker”, a survival expert whose work gives him a clear advantage on this show. The rest of the cast include “Engineer”, “Carpenter Chick”, “Waitress”, “Air Force”, “Black Doctor”, “Rancher”, “Cheerleader Boy”, “Biology”, “Exorcist”, and “Banker”. No real names are given in the chapters that serve as an overview of the show, describing the production process with an almost cold, detached attitude. These sections follow the contestants on their team challenges, but also include behind-the-scenes looks at how the episodes are filmed and put together. We come to realize that all the contestants have their own reasons for being on the show, but the editors try to twist and frame each situation so that they become less like real people and more like “characters”—fabricated personalities to fit the narrative they want shown on television.
But in between these chapters, we also get a more up-close-and-personal perspective. These sections are narrated by Zoo, bringing the only part of this reality TV show that feels REAL. True names are used, humanizing the cast once again. We can finally make the connections and discover who everyone is, such as, Tracker is actually Cooper, who wants to win the money to pay for healthcare for his sick mother, or that Waitress is actually Heather, a recruited actress who secretly hopes this stint will be her big break.
Zoo’s own reasons for applying to be on the show in the first place are more complicated. There’s always more to the truth, which we discover as we follow her on her struggles through the wilderness. There’s definitely an element of the unreliable narrator here as well, as we recall Zoo’s memories and live through her fears, and all the while her resolve (and sanity) continues to break down. As such, Zoo’s willful denial of the true reality was probably my biggest issue with the story. I could appreciate what Oliva was trying to accomplish with this, but I also must have lost count of the number of times I wanted to shout “STOP BEING SO STUPID!” at the pages of this book. Zoo’s tunnel vision was overplayed to the extent that it damaged my esteem for her character, and ultimately kept this from being a perfect novel.
Still, there’s no denying that its premise is unbelievably clever and well thought out. I’m no fan of reality TV myself, but I’ve seen my fair share of them in the early 2000s spending summers with my cousin who was a real Survivor, Big Brother, and Amazing Race junkie. For The Last One, Oliva nails the “Reality TV” angle right down to the tiny little nuances, making it all seem so scarily convincing, capturing that kind of atmosphere so perfectly that it’s uncanny. This juxtaposition between carefully crafted illusion and true reality is also a theme present throughout the novel, as Zoo tries to come to terms with what she sees in the real world. I was so wracked with suspense over what might happen to her once she figures out the truth, several times I almost caved to the temptation of flipping to the last page just to see how it all ends (but I am glad I didn’t).
All told, I can’t tell you how impressed I am that this is Oliva’s debut effort. She’s taken an incredibly unique idea and executed it in a very ingenious and ambitious way—and I think that boldness paid off in spades. I would definitely recommend The Last One to readers looking for a thought-provoking and eye-opening novel, especially if you like the idea of a very different kind of apocalyptic dystopian story.