A man-made virus has wiped out all the humans in the galaxy… except one. Ruslan (he doesn’t know whether that’s his first or last name) is the last man standing, literally, on a faraway planet colonized by humans long ago. He was rescued by aliens who took Ruslan in and cared for him. They’re nice aliens and, with Ruslan’s help, want to study and preserve human culture. Now Ruslan is an old man, living in this pleasant but alien society. He likes his hosts, but he is still lonely for human contact even though he knows that humans are at fault in masterminding their own extinction. When he makes a bargain with the aliens, they go in search of Old Earth and make a surprising discovery.
I just can’t resist a “last human in the universe” kind of story. Even though I’m pretty far out on the “I” side of the Extraversion-Introversion spectrum, I really ached for Ruslan’s plight even before I started Relic (2018). My empathy for Alan Dean Foster’s protagonist carried me pretty far with this book and it’s hard to say whether a reader who isn’t automatically drawn to him is going to feel the same way. The story is well written and the plot is intriguing, but most of my enjoyment of this novel came simply from my desire for Ruslan to find some humans to love by the end of the book. (I’m not going to tell you if that happens.)
As far as the science fiction ideas go, there’s nothing new and earth-shaking here — I’ve seen it all before, and often done better. Getting the science right doesn’t seem to be an essential feature of this novel — the spaceship travel wasn’t convincing and the aliens, who were intent on resurrecting the human species, missed a prime opportunity. There is, however, a nice short discussion about the difficulty of understanding how the brain creates consciousness and holds on to memory, a current “hot topic” in neuroscience.
But Relic includes some of my favorite SF themes such as a love and nostalgia for Old Earth, a need for human connection, and a desire to be productive. I have seen these themes expressed more beautifully (I’m thinking especially of Roger Zelazny and Robert Silverberg) but Foster’s depiction of Ruslan’s loneliness and desire for companionship is powerful, making Relic a book that I couldn’t put down.
I listened to the audiobook version of Relic which was produced by Random House Audio. Marc Thompson’s narration was sometimes too dramatic for me, but I love his voice and overall I think he did a good job with the characters and the pacing. I recommend this version for audiobook readers.