Perhaps the most pivotal event in my intellectual formation was reading the book 1984. If 1984 had a proper dystopic heir, fitting for the 21st century, The Last Man Alive would be it.
I remember quite vividly why 1984 made such an impact on me. Reading it, I came to the conclusion that “Big Brother” did not exist; that there may have not have been even a tri-lateral world of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia (as Julia speculated); and that the government enforced austerity served the interest of no one (as Orwell made clear that the Inner Party did not have a particularly high standard of living.) This means all the death, sacrifice, and misery served no purpose.
If it was merely the rich exploiting the poor, then at least someone benefited. Or, if it was a Stalinist dictatorship, at least Big Brother himself benefited. But, in Orwell’s twisted dystopic world, no one benefited.
This is the genius of 1984 which no other dystopic novel has even come close to approaching. Zamyatin’s We had a literal “Benefactor” which was a balding, pathetic man. Huxley’s Brave New World had the Alphas who lived quite lavishly. Burgess’ 1985, an obvious attempt at picking up the mantle of Orwell if there ever was one, has rich Arabs buying and selling land and people.
All 1984 has is a foot, stamping on a human face–forever. The foot is not a class or even a person. It is power for power’s sake. A power that exists due to an ubiquitous evil that permeates everything, but exists nowhere–like a void of goodness in the hearts of men manifesting itself into a physical reality.
I am beside myself when I reflect upon this as nothing in literature has come close to making this dark, but fantastically true and Biblical observation–until now.
Victor Kontos’ The Last Man Alive is truly the heir to 1984. Its title is not only a tip of the hat to 1984‘s original working title (The Last Man in Europe), but its central premise is exactly the same as 1984‘s and the Bible’s–what’s wrong with the world is not political, but it is inherent to the heart of man. Power exists for power’s sake and the way it manifests itself is not in a maximization of utility that Adam Smith theorized, but an irrational spontaneous consumerism of Thorstein Veblin. In short, the only thing that is consistent is the darkness of man’s heart and how it manifests itself in society.
Despite these lofty words, The Last Man Alive is not some masterpiece of literature. It reads more like a rudimentarily-written dark comedy than anything, written so simply a seventh grader would be able to follow along easily.
The protagonist, Erwin Gomes, essentially lives in a fascitst late-21st century America which is not too different than our own time other than the fact that social media has evolved to the point that sexual relations and eating can be done in a virtual reality. The government, with obvious parallels to Nazism (the dictator is named “Drexler,” which happens to be the last name of the Nazi Party’s founder Anton Drexler), is bumbling and inept. Pretty much what you expect from the US Post Office or the DMV. Foreign policy is a glorified proxy-war against an obviously inferior adversary (in the book it is Russia).
Work is relentless. One endlessly attends after-hours work meetings in a virtual office which means sleep practically does not exist. Coffee, in this dystopic future, is essentially a cocktail of amphetamines and psychotropic drugs which enables its drinker to be pushed to the limits of his human productivity until he can be disposed of like a spare part. Having children is near unaffordable and the difference between the middle class and the welfare class is negligible–merely pride or the hope of being well-to-do keeps one going. Hopefully all the unpaid internships, massive student debt, and flat out good luck all click at the same time to make the sacrifice worthwhile.
If this is not post-“Great Recession” United States of America, I do not know what is.
The book often questions what reality is, not so much in the 18-year old overly relativistic sort of way, but in a concrete “why doesn’t everyone understand the obvious” one. Gomes has an obvious sense of what is true, moral, or factually correct and often finds that all of these things are irrelevant simply because everyone disagrees with him and they have power simply impose their will.
An example of this playing out is in his workplace. Gomes is obviously the workhorse of the office. As an AI engineer, his job is to “tell computers to tell other computers what to do.” A quick glance at a production metric would make clear to anybody that he is an asset to the company. Yet, due to him not having just the “right” posture, bubbly attitude, and phony expression on his face his management sizes him up as a creep of sorts. This reputation, though undeserved, stunts his career. Due to the assessment of his abilities being so subjective, he is powerless to do anything concrete to counter it.
The message is clear–the individual has no intrinsic worth. His conformity to a fallen world with fallen values, is the only thing that makes one valuable to others. Similar to Orwell, a subjective reality (parasitic and arbitrary expectations) manifests itself in objective evils. Yet, unlike 1984, the way this is portrayed is in many respects more accessible and flippant. The humor is at times frivolous, as the book is not above subtle (though uncredited) pop-culture references or poking fun at people’s idiocy.
Without getting into too many details, the way the book ends is particularly tragic. There is a capitulation to darkness and in perhaps the best written dream sequence I have ever seen, a subconscious acknowledgement of this capitulation. For me, Kontos’ insight into this even topped 1984.
1984 ends with the Inner Party brainwashing Winston Smith so that he is essentially a zombie that loves big brother and then they shoot him in the back of the head. Dark, yes, but The Last Man Alive delves into more pitiful depths.
In the end, Gomes appears to be a addict who is going to happily “upload himself” to the virtual reality world. This, in fact, kills the organic subject, but due to a vacuous belief that a replicated consciousness is identical with its source Gomes is completely unaware that he is seeking his own suicide. Nevertheless, despite the protagonist’s seeming ignorance of the precipice he is standing on, it is revealed he is at some level aware that things are not supposed to be the way they are.
Like Holden Caufield watching his sister try to grab the golden rings, Gomes desires “the good.” He knows what he actually desires to reach out for when he dreams. Yet, in an awaken and alert state, this desire is suppressed by a consciousness lacking such a desire entirely. This to me is the utter depths of darkness, as to be inwardly tortured but not consciously able to address the cause is a deplorable state even worse than the willing and ignorant acquiescence of 1984‘s Smith.
In 1984, the Inner Party takes its opposition and makes them into willing converts before offing them, just because they can. The Last Man Alive lives in a world that has forced complete conformity onto its subjects, but they persist inwardly wounded until they are disposed off. They do not even have the benefit of just going along. Beneath smiles and momentary ecstasy is a deep hurting that cannot be addressed. It is almost as if the society keeps one alive along enough to be beaten into submission and then reminded of his horrid state, just to get one last insult before spitting him out for good.
As I reflect on the theological ramifications of this premise, it is my view that this is the truth for all the damned, living in sin as the Prince of this world intends. The Devil, unlike Big Brother, gets more than the heart of men. He leaves just a little bit of the flesh so his servants know their slavery to him and their punishment is that much more profound. Or, in what would be consistent with the verbiage of the book, just an extra kick in the nuts for no good reason.
Other than the relatively elementary writing style and editing of the novel (not that I’m one to judge), the book’s main weakness is its inadequate portrayal of God. Granted, the writer is evidently not a Christian, so pressing for theological accuracy would be a fool’s errand. But, God in this book is no more than a dark psychological projection on the part of the author. She is Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, just merely by decree–an observation Job is tempted to accept in Job 23:13. There is no negotiation with this God and Gomes understandably wants nothing to do with Her as with Her is no compassion, benefit, or even remotely understandable purpose to Her ways.
Granted, this is how many people think of God when they are suffering, but this is because the primary cause of their suffering is that they are seeking defective blessings. A good marriage, productive job, robust health, and happy marriage are indeed all blessings–but they pale in comparison to the blessing of Godliness and fellowship with Him. So, when God withdraws health, work, or happiness in some way in order to purify our hearts, the end result is that we shall see God (Matt 5:8). This is the only inexhaustible and infinite source of joy that is even philosophically possible (and why the Gospel of Christ, though promising us trials, is reason for great joy.) The author clearly does not understand this.
I highly recommend reading this book. It is on Amazon Kindle and it is not expensive. At the very least, you will be entertained. More likely than that, you will have some reflections to chew on and if you are a real 1984-buff, a fitting successor to its thematic and psychological elements.