When the term “dystopian” has become shorthand for nearly any vision of a future that isn’t all friendly robots and rejuvenation technology, it’s nice to have a reminder of what a genuinely horrid vision of tomorrow might look like. Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive sits uneasily between science fiction and horror, which places it in an ideal place to offer readers a harrowing vision of the near future. Davis-Goff’s novel details a future hostile environment, and charts out the effects of living in such a world. This isn’t a place in which the objective is to rule or acquire cool skills; instead, it’s one where survival means doing terrible things, and where the collapse of civilization has allowed the worst of humanity free rein to entertain their worst impulses.
The novel is set in Ireland, several decades in the future. Our narrator is Orpen, raised by her mother and her mother’s partner Maeve on an island off the coast of Ireland after civilization as we know it imploded. The cause was an infection which turns humans into monsters called skrake: something with both vampire and zombie elements.
Based on some descriptions of it—mild spoiler alert—that which transforms humans into skrake seems to be a kind of fungal organism. Davis-Goff doesn’t go into too many specifics, and that seems true to the setting: this is not a book about characters with advanced scientific or medical knowledge, and it’s not set in a world where a character might come along to deliver a host of exposition. All we know about it is what Orpen knows: what she’s been told and what she’s seen with her own eyes.
When the novel opens, Orpen has set out for the mainland with Maeve in tow. Something bad has happened to Maeve and something worse has happened to Orpen’s mother. Over the course of the novel, Davis-Goff alternates between this plotline and a series of flashbacks that flesh out the world and show an idyllic household, an oasis amidst chaos that we know won’t be able to last.
Orpen’s time on the mainland leads her in the direction of a settlement called Phoenix City. As with many things in this novel, the idea of a lasting human settlement amidst the skrake might seem inviting, but based on past history, the people most likely to survive in hostile environments aren’t necessarily the most kind-hearted souls out there.
And so Orpen makes her way through a hazardous landscape, and through the even more fraught landscape of her own memories. Davis-Goff concerns herself abundantly with Orpen’s psychology, and what treating nearly everyone as a threat can do to someone—even someone as relatively young as this novel’s narrator. And when Orpen does encounter a band of humans, she is placed in a situation where her own ethical makeup is challenged.
It doesn’t hurt that Orpen’s narrative voice allows for moments blending descriptive power and characterization:
“Alone, I walk through the village. The whole island feels different without Mam and Maeve on it; the silence is so aggressive. The noises, from the wind or a bird, are threatening. On my left now is the big shop. I’ve been inside it before and know there’s nothing good left. After the Emergency something went badly wrong inside.”
Last Ones Left Alive can at times feel like a distinctly feminist, Irish spin on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Both books explore the psychology of a lone protagonist who has to deal with the fractured remains of humanity; both books explore the effect of hunting monsters on their protagonist’s soul. Davis-Goff tells a taut and harrowing story here, but it’s also one that allows for moments of hope. In an era of fiction that embraces bleakness, this novel’s suggestion that all may not be lost comes as a hard-fought and resonant statement of humanism, even when humanity can seem lost.
Last Ones Left Alive is available from Flatiron Books.