Monday, July 24, 2023

You'll love the winner of the second Self-Published Science Fiction Competition

Rory August's novel The Last Gifts of the Universe is a beautiful exploration of the idea of joy in the middle of cosmic abandonment

I have a soft spot for self-published science fiction. I know first-hand the stress, the insecurity, the persistent sense of disorientation, the all-devouring doubt that is the bane of the aspiring author. To watch self-published books succeed fills me with warm fuzzies.

Full disclosure: I participated in the second Self-Published Science Fiction Competition. But this article is not about me. This is about the very deserving winner, Rory August, for their spectacular space opera The Last Gifts of the Universe.

In a far future when, seemingly by pure luck, only one starfaring civilization remains, space archaeologists jump from planet to planet trying to figure out what killed every other sentient species that ever existed. Scout, our protagonist, works for an organization called the Archivists, collecting technological relics that might contain data from the last days of each world they find. Along with their brother and their unfailingly opinionated cat, they climb, rappel, tiptoe, crawl and jump across the ruins of advanced societies that were mysteriously wiped out thousands of years ago. If any of those ruins happen to contain intact hard drives, Scout hopes, maybe those alive now will learn from those historical records how to avert the same fate.

However, the focus of the novel isn't so much on the strategies for defeating the strange world-burning entity that's been extinguishing sentient life, but on the significance that it may have for every small, fragile person to know that death is coming and no one knows what to do about it. This is a practical way for an author to link the larger drama to the individual drama: the characters cope with the death of civilizations by relying on the same emotional tools that we use to cope with the loss of loved ones. Scout is still mourning their mother, and through the text it becomes clear that the author wants to compare the techniques of archaeology with the process of mourning: digging up old belongings, trying to ascertain their function, undusting fragments of letters, debating for decades what this or that odd phrase may have meant, choosing what to preserve and what to give up.

With this strong thematic parallel, the novel suggests that knowing your world will die is no different from knowing you'll die personally. We can choose, through the mementos we leave behind, to perform our ultimate gesture of love. If true love doesn't expect retribution, then love for coming generations is the truest form, because it can't possibly receive any retribution. And still, knowing this, knowing there's no reward or acknowledgment, we are capable of loving the future. We are capable of leaving the best of us for the benefit of those yet to come.

The point of The Last Gifts of the Universe isn't how to stop death. No one has that answer. Rather, this is a story about how to build the fortitude to keep doing what matters to you even when you have the certainty that you'll vanish forever. What Scout finds in this mission not only reaffirms their sense of the importance of recovering what's left from the dead, but also gives them some much needed comfort in the knowledge that those who preceded us wrestled with the anxious questions that plague us, and we can find strength in what they chose to transmit to us. This is not only a precious view of our finiteness in a hostile universe, but also a precious gift from Rory August to their readers.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: August, Rory. The Last Gifts of the Universe [self-published, 2022].