The Last Man in a Universe of Robots

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When I was a kid I would sometimes buy those pulpy old science fiction novels you come across in second-hand bookstores. I wasn’t on some hipstery pulp nostalgia trip — I don’t think stuff like that was even cool yet. It was just that we didn’t have the Internet, so you couldn’t order stuff off of Amazon, and we didn’t have a ton of information about what was good and what wasn’t. You didn’t have Amazon reviews or blogs or any of that. So you went to a used bookstore and took your best shot.

Anyway, one of the books I bought was an old Ace Double, these old paperbacks where they’d bind two novellas back to back, one of them upside down. (It’s worth reading the Wikipedia entry just for the lengthy definition of tête-bêche binding.) This one looked like this:

On the back was The Jewels of Aptor by the much-better-known Samuel Delany, which to this day I still haven’t read. On the front was Second Ending by James White, which became one of those weird primal reading experiences which you never really get over.

Second Ending goes like this: guy wakes up from long hypersleep to discover that the rest of humanity has died out around him. All that’s left are a bunch of service robots, one of whom woke him up. Our hero, Ross, is pretty bummed that he’s the last human being alive. He misses his wife/girlfriend (I forget which) Alice.

Slowly he starts exploring the ruined Earth he’s inherited. The dead sea, the irradiated earth, etc. He deploys platoons of robots to search for other people, or any life at all, and eventually just for food. At the same time the robots start evolving from clunky automata to sophisticated devices. The process accelerates as Ross starts going in and out of hypersleep — he’ll have himself put down for a couple of centuries while the robots work on a project, then when he wakes up the Earth will have degenerated further, and the robots will have gone through a couple of hundred iterations. Eventually we get into a strange deep future, with energy beings and a dying sun …

No spoilers, but it’s the only Last Man story I know that has a happy ending, or at least a bittersweet one. Ross has a kind of gruff I can’t-believe-this-shit-is-happening sense of humor, and White is a genius at chronicling the slow breakdown of the planet and the gradual ascent of the robots into semi-divine entities. Find it if you can, you won’t regret it.

I will leave you with the canonical joke about Ace Doubles. Here goes:

“If the Holy Bible was printed as an Ace Double”, an editor once remarked, “it would be cut down to two 20,000-word halves with the Old Testament retitled as ‘Master of Chaos’ and the New Testament as ‘The Thing With Three Souls.’”

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