The Last Man on Earth Club is without a doubt the most original idea for a science fiction novel I've come across in a long, long time. On a multiversal hub world to which refugees of apocalypses (apocalypti?) galore are brought after being rescued from Earth's destruction by everything from solar flares to zombie plagues to Heaven's Gate-style mass suicides on a planetary scale, six people, each of whom is the sole survivor of his home universe's variant on the human species, are treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as part of the process of integrating them into a brand new society. That's the book in a nutshell, setting, cast and plot all in one. Such a schtick carries with it both the potential to be horrible and gimmicky, and the potential to be weirdly awesome.
I'm happy to say it's weirdly awesome, though I was left feeling a little dissatisfied with the ending.
But the beginning and middle are all kinds of inventive fun, fun that manages to have a real sense of authenticity to it.*
Fans of post-apocalyptic fiction will enjoy the veritable buffet of ways the world has ended in these survivors' experiences. Hardy explores nuclear war (from the perspective of the man who just might have been the one to push the big red button that started it all), alien suicide cults (from the perspective of the only person to survive his blissful attempt to join those bright white energy balls who promised Heaven to anyone with the courage to join them -- and who is still trying to spread the faith in his new world), Matrix/Terminator-esque man vs machine wars (from the perspective of a cyborg found drifting naked in outer space), the ever popular zombie apocalypse (from the perspective of an embittered doctor who tried to fight it), a horrible history of slavery and final extermination of one human species by another who shared the planet with it (from the perspective of the last survivor of a failed captive breeding program to preserve the species in a zoo), and a comic book world where just over half of the population has some kind of superpower but that couldn't save them from some kind of mad science experiment gone horribly wrong and spontaneously combusting them all (from the perspective of a ditzy office girl who thinks everyone just took off and hid from her as a practical joke). As the stories are told, the survivors emerge as distinctive personalities and fully-rounded characters, characters in a lot of pain and denial and trauma, trying to cope with what happened and with each other's foibles.
This would be enough for a pretty interesting book, but author Paul R. Hardy was much more ambitious than that. Rather than just creating a sort of post-apocalyptic Breakfast Club**, he turned his novel into a serious discussion of refugee care, genocide, justice and jurisdiction in a way that still has me astonished.
He also spun all of this into a sort of mystery plot, tantalizingly hinting at the possibility that some or all of these planetary destructions and extinctions are linked, that they might have been the deliberate work of one or more races of bad actors. Several of the characters, in the course of their therapy, reveal clues to who this might have been and how it might have come to pass, and as the Hub prepares to receive another huge wave of refugees from a universe in which the Earth is being destroyed by solar flares gone wild (that might just have been deliberately set off, one suspicious survivor hints), resolve to try to take on this unknown entity and deliver to it/them the punishment/justice that the IU looks unlikely to ever mete out. Interesting stuff, this (but isn't it all?), but it is here that my dissatisfaction comes in: this is never tied up, really, at all. None of it is, really. The novel just sort of ends -- on a semi-promising note, sure, but not with any conclusions or finality. I've not seen any word on whether a sequel is in the works, but there had better be, Mr. Hardy.
There had better be.
*Having been treated for PTSD myself, I found the novel's depiction of this difficult, chancy and inexact process to be wonderfully true to life, even as the stories emerging from individual and group sessions were the stuff of pulp fiction and comic books. I admire the balance the author struck there exceedingly.
**Though on this level the book works just as brilliantly as the John Hughes film I refer to. These characters are vivid as hell, and while none of them could ever be called likable, they nonetheless inspire both sympathy and empathy and feel utterly real and believable.