Monday, February 20, 2023

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: The Last Gifts of the Universe by Rory August


The last gifts of the universe is a self published space opera debut novel by author Rory August. The novel is one of the semifinalists for the Self Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC2 - my reviews of these books can be found here)) and as such is one of six novels myself and my group of reviewers is now tasked with judging. Just by making it to the semifinals meant that this book already got some praise from other reviewers, and I also noted that it had a blurb from author Sunyi Dean, whose novel The Book Eaters I really liked, so I was excited to give this book a try.

And well, The Last Gifts of the Universe kind of blew me away to some extent: it’s a really well written short novel dealing with life in a universe where every other civilization has seemingly died out and where the end is inevitable, and how people might go on and live despite all that and despite the grief they may feel amidst all the death. And with its really easy to relate main protagonist, and some flashbacks to a love story that is incredibly well written, the book tugs on the heartstrings incredibly well, even if it’s not super profound. This will be a strong contender not just to be a finalist but to win the SPSFC based just on my read.

--------------------------------------------------Plot Summary------------------------------------
Humanity has reached the stars...but has found only destruction out in the Universe - as every other alien civilization seems to have been destroyed by some unknown force. That force left behind fossilized civilizations, worlds without growing plants or other lifeforms, rare dangerous beings called Revenants who seemingly cannot be killed, and most valuably caches of data and memories of the civilizations that once were. These data caches range from utterly pointless and sentimental to insanely valuable clues to more advanced technologies and and it is the job of Archivists to go out into the universe and discover such caches so as to bring them back to humanity.

Scout and Kieran are siblings who, along with their cat Pumpkin, have taken up the Archivists' cause to hunt down valuable data caches. The two are incredibly close, and have no other family after their mother passed away early from disease - their beloved mother who introduced them both to the Archivists' cause. It's a sometimes lonely solitary cause, but Scout is devoted to the work and the mission that meant so much to their mother.

So when Scout discovers a cache on a far away planet that seems to have information about the mysterious force that has killed every other civilization, Scout becomes determined to obtain all that information so as to possibly save humanity from suffering that same fate. There's just one problem - rival hunters, working for the greedy Verity Co. make off with the other half of the cache's data, which Verity Co. intends to use to control and sell for a profit. Left only with what seems to be a sentimental story of an alien long since dead, Scout becomes determined to beat the Verity Co agents to the remaining caches in the area, which might contain the crucial information...but not only does Verity have all the technological advantages, but these caches are in places filled with far worse dangers, all of which can pose the end for Scout, Kieran and Pumpkin at any moment.

And given all the obstacles in their path, the threats to their lives, and Kieran's feelings that he might want more out of life...Scout has to wonder, is this life and quest really worth pursuing?
Okay, that's a bad plot summary, but it's an attempt here, because The Last Gifts of the Universe is, despite a small page-length, dealing with a bunch of really important concepts that kind of escape the basic idea of the plot summary which could I guess just be described as non-profit archeologists Scout and Kieran on a chase for long lost data against rival capitalist archeologists who intend to sell that information for a profit. As I stated before the jump, this is a story dealing with the ideas of the value of trying in life even when it seems all will inevitably result in an ignoble end - whether that end be one's individual death, or the death of an entire civilization due to an unstoppable force. It's also a story dealing with the hold grief has on someone and a way for people to try to move on. And while, as I'm about to explain below, the Lost Gifts of the Universe does this really well, it also manages to do so with some lightness and enjoyable prose that stop the plot from ever feeling very morose. The book begins with the protagonist Scout cleaning off their cat's vomit from inside their ship, to give you an idea of the tone sometimes, even if the book never verges into outright silly humor.

And the book works really well because its characters, particularly its lead Scout and its posthumous alien character Blyreena, are really easily relatable and easy to empathize with. Scout is a person you can understand really well - they still struggle with grief over the loss of their mother and have dived into the work of their mother and themselves to seemingly get over it, with them searching for something to give it all meaning. They're determined, once they find out about the possiblity of a discovery that could save the human race, to try and get that discovery and to avoid it falling into the hands of a corporation who might never release it for the common good and who might instead sell it off to the highest bidder, even if that dooms humanity in the process. And they find themselves struggling when that quest appears impossible, or when others like their beloved brother seem to suggest not going for it because it isn't worth the risk to their own lives. And Scout's relationship with both their cat Pumpkin - beloved scrap that the cat is - and their brother Kieran is really really well written, as the two siblings get into conflict over their own individual wants, over Scout's own recklessness in their pursuit and more...but manage to talk out or solve such conflicts with pizza and video games...and mutual understanding eventually of each other's points. They're a really well rounded character.

And Scout grows and develops through this book through both their own experiences, and that of Blyreena, an alien woman who recorded on the half data cache they obtain a memoir of sorts of her life, her romance with an alien man, and how it all ended. Blyreena's romance and story is incredibly well written, and I almost teared up at how things were clearly going to end (and at how they did) since we know from the setting that they all are dead now. It's a sometimes funny but always serious and well meaning tale, and the message Blyreena leaves for viewers - in this case Scout or the reader themselves, is really strong: about how life is worth it for what it is, and to move forward from grief is to recognize how bright the light was from the lives one has lost, and that the reason that it hurts is the same reason why continuing to live to shine one's own light is the way to go. I'm writing and explaining this poorly, which is why I'm the reviewer and not the author here, but this story is told incredibly well.

The two stories, Blyreena's and Scout's, come together really nicely in the end, with the conflict between Verity Co. and the Archivists coming to a conclusion that is NOT world saving, but is one that allows for them to move forward even if there isn't any macguffin that will save the human race. It's not an ending that is shocking, but it again is written and works really well, and deals incredibly well with the issues of grief, life, love, and death, and how it's all worth it. This is far from the most profound book on these topics I've read, which is why I am not going to give this a perfect score, but it's still really good, and the way it's all conveyed in this space opera package is some real impressive writing that I can easily recommend to almost everyone. An easy recommend, and I hope this moves on to the Finals of the SPSFC.

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