A person — whose name and gender are never specified, because that person is “you” — wakes up, alone in a room. You’re blind and in intense pain, and at first you remember nothing at all of your past. You only hear one person, Dr. Anne Kuhn, who instructs you through a speaker: testing you mentally, badgering you to exercise, and, little by little, giving you bits of information about your past life and about why you are where you are now. Gradually it becomes clear that something disastrous has happened.
The Last Conversation (2019) is an odd but compelling and ominous science fiction novella from Paul Tremblay. It’s reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode: strange, somber and slightly horrific in a slow-burn way, with a surprising reveal at the end (or perhaps not so surprising to a perceptive reader; there are some clues as to where this story is heading, though I didn’t guess it myself).
Telling a story in second person — presumably to increase readers’ perception that they’re in the place of the main character — is a tricky thing to pull off well. Combined with the fact that the main character’s name is never given and there’s just a blank line in the text every time Anne speaks their name, it added to the general sense of unease. Perhaps that was intentional on Tremblay’s part; in which case, mission accomplished.
The Last Conversation is a slower-paced work that steadily and inexorably moves toward its disturbing conclusion. Given the main character’s lack of memory and needing to relearn many physical and manual skills from scratch, Tremblay’s approach does make some sense, and the pacing didn’t drag enough to bother me because this was such a quick read. Still, it’s a good thing this is a short novella; if it were longer I think it would have collapsed under its own weight.
The ending was a decent payoff, although it raised several unanswered questions. Anne’s motivations for their final, key conversation are somewhat murky, and the underlying science that is critical to the plot is extremely hand-wavey.
The Last Conversation is part of the FORWARD collection proposed and curated by Blake Crouch. It’s a set of six stand-alone novellas, each by a different author, that explore the “effects of a pivotal technological moment.” The authors are Crouch, N.K. Jemisin, Veronica Roth, Amor Towles, Tremblay and Andy Weir. The individual novellas are reasonably priced and available in ebook and audio form individually or as a set.