The Last Book in the Universe (2000) is a post-apocalypticscience fictionnovel by Rodman Philbrick. Set in a cyberpunkdystopia, its protagonist and narrator is a teenage boy named Spaz who suffers from epilepsy.
The story is set in a post-disaster, dystopic future city, appearing to be somewhere in the United States, called the Urb, which has been disturbed by an earthquake known as "The Big Shake". The Urb is plagued by poverty, thieves, gang warfare, and the use of mindprobes. These mindprobes include variations such as "trendies" (mindprobes about Eden). They are analogous to hard drugs and enable users to temporarily escape their harsh lives through images like movies being played in their heads. Genetically improved people, called "proovs," live in a city called Eden, with a beautiful society, food and water. Eden is separated from the Urb by the "Forbidden Zone," a deadly and dangerous minefield. Spaz is a 14-year-old boy who cannot use mindprobes because of his epilepsy and whose adoptive family has abandoned him because they feared the symptoms of his illness. Spaz runs errands for Billy Bizmo, the latch-boss (leader) of his own gang, the "Bully Bangers," in a section of the Urb. On one of his errands, Spaz is sent to "rip-off" Ryter, a very old man who possesses the lost arts of literacy and literature.
Spaz soon meets Little Face, a five-year-old orphan who only says the word "chox," because he didn't learn how to speak. Spaz also meets Lanaya, a proov who charitably gives out edibles(a futuristic food) to Spaz. At first, Spaz is very hostile towards Ryter, when Spaz arrives to "rip-off" (steal) Ryter's meager possessions. Contrastingly, Ryter understands Spaz's situation and does his best to help him, offering no resistance. Eventually Spaz learns that Bean, his beloved adoptive sister, is dying of the blood sickness (leukemia). Ryter and Little Face accompany Spaz on a journey to find Bean. The trio starts by traveling through "The Pipe," a large, rustic water pipe that leads to other latches. Along the way, they pass through latches controlled by various other bosses, having adventures along the way. One of the latches is ruled by the "Monkey Boys." Spaz and company find out that the latch-leader, Mongo the Magnificent, is dying because of a probe being in his head for an extended time. Ryter convinces one of the tek bosses to take Mongo's place. In the next latch, the group sees everything burning and finds Lanaya being attacked by very hungry people. She is rescued by Spaz and Ryter and she joins them on their journey. Spaz and company start traveling towards the latch where Bean lives. Eventually, through many dangers, toils, and snares, the story's heroes find a dying Bean. Lanaya and Ryter decide to take Bean to Eden, along with Spaz and Little Face. They ride along in Lanaya's takvee to her and her "contributors" (Jin and Bree) home, which is a castle.
At this point in the novel, it is brought to attention that Lanaya is a special proov who has been bred to eventually become a Master of Eden. To assume this title, she has rights and privileges that other proovs do not call "learning opportunities." They take Bean to a proov hospital called the Primary and she is cured of her sickness using gene therapy. Ryter, Spaz, and Little Face enjoy the paradise of Eden, being unfamiliar with grass, a blue sky, fish in a stream, and apples, among other things. Some time later Ryter, Spaz, and Bean are thrown out of Eden because the elders who rule over Eden decide they are unacceptable. Little Face is secretly adopted by Lanaya's contributors. The elders disregard Beans's high intelligence, proved by having beaten one of Lanaya's contributors (Jin) in chess. Their presumption is that someone from the Urb could never naturally be better than a proov in any way. Lanaya reveals to the elders that the mindprobes, which come from Eden, cause too much damage to the people who use them in the Urb. As a result, all the mindprobes throughout the Urb are deactivated, causing rioting and anarchy outside Eden. Bean is deposited at her home, and Ryter and Spaz are returned to their latch.
Back at Spaz's home latch, Ryter is blamed for the deactivation of the mindprobes and is wheeled by jetbikes which kills the old man. The stress caused by this assault triggered an epileptic seizure for Spaz. Before his death, Ryter tells Spaz that Spaz is in the last book in the universe. Billy Bizmo, the leader of Spaz's latch, reveals to Spaz that he is his biological father and that his mother died at Spaz's birth.
The story ends with Lanaya sending Spaz a message about things will get better in Eden and how she believes they can fix it all in time. Spaz takes on the name Ryter, continuing the original Ryter's work, writing The Last Book in the Universe using a device called a voicewriter that transcribes when he speaks to it.
- SPAZ -The narrator, a teenager part of the Bully Bangers, initially rips off Ryter, has a condition called epilepsy
- RYTER - Lives in stack boxes, always accused of back timer talk, writes the last book in the universe, loves adventure and has formal talk
- Billy - Boss of the Bully Bangers, the biological father of Spaz, rumored to be an ex-lovemate of Lotti Getts.
- Little Face - A five-year-old child, lives in stack boxes, takes up a love for chox (chocolate flavored edible), eventually adopted by Lanaya's contributors
- Bean - Spaz's adoptive sister, has the blood sickness(called leukemia), biological daughter of Charly and Kay
- Charly - Bean's biological father, Spaz's adoptive father, casts Spaz out because of his epilepsy
- Kay - Bean's biological mother, Spaz's adoptive mother, understanding
- Lanaya - A proov girl, loves the sense of adventure and thrill, confident, persuasive, Future Master of Eden, contribute of Jin and Bree
- Lotti Getts - Latch boss outside of Eden, nicknamed Boss Lady, Nails, and White Widow because her lovemates don't stay around for a long time
- Vida Bleek - A secret probe dealer, head of the Furies, Lotti Getts's mortal enemy
- Jin - Lanaya's male contributor, one of the top-ranked chess players in Eden
- Bree - Lanaya's female contributor (parent), takes a fondness to Little Face and adopts him
- Mongo the Magnificent - A dead latch boss, leader of the Monkey Boys. He is eventually replaced by a tekboss.
Major themes, in a list created by Scholastic, included reading, technology, challenges and overcoming obstacles, courage, bravery, heroism, and individuality. Scholastic also wrote in conclusion, "the story is ultimately about those who have the courage to become conscious in a world that invites us to choose illusion and denial."
The novel is an adaptation of a short story previously written by the author in a collection called Tomorrowland. The story was also influenced greatly by Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
The Last Book in the Universe has received mixed reviews. Many critics praised the novel for its involving plot. Debbie Carton, a reviewer from Booklist, called it a "fast-paced adventure" with a "moving conclusion" and "memorable characters." A number of critics agreed: Scholastic called the story "chilling and inspiring." A reviewer from Publishers Weekly wrote, "[the book's] futuristic dialect combined with striking descriptions of a postmodern civilization will convincingly transport readers to Spaz's world."
However, Susan L. Rogers from School Library Journal pointed out that there are too many distractions that pull the reader's attention away from the main theme. She also noted that the science in this science fiction novel was "vague."Publishers Weekly added that the story was "not fully developed," complaining that some scenes, such as the ones involving the Monkey Boys and the Furies, were "a bit abrupt."
Subject Area: Language Arts
Reading level: 5.3
Life is tough since the Big Shake. The world is a harsh place and the people are unforgiving. In the backtime, people used to escape the hardships of the real world through reading. But that time has passed and books have all but been forgotten. Now the only relaxation is a mindprobe needle that shoots any image you desire straight to your brain. Spaz, unlike everyone else, has never been able to use a mindprobe because he has epilepsy. Without the probe his mind remains sharp and his memory is far better than others. But it isn't until he meets Ryter, "a saggy old gummy," that Spaz realizes the importance of how the written word can preserve the past and change his future.
Objective: Students will write a chapter of the main character's book and investigate the importance of the written word.
Standard: Student reflects on what has been learned after reading and formulates ideas, opinions, and personal responses to text.
Standard: Student will make inferences and draw conclusions about story elements.
Ask students to think about the first book they can remember reading. Have them write about an early childhood experience that dealt with either reading or writing. Who were they with during this experience? What emotions did they feel? Can they remember their favorite books when they were little? Share these experiences.
A World Without Reading and Writing
- Ask students to identify places where they find writing (e.g., movies, menus, books, articles, speeches, ads).
- Tell them to imagine a world where writing and reading do not exist. How would life be different?
- Ask students: Why do we write things down?
- Split the class into groups of no more than three and give them chart paper. Give each group a question and ask them to web their answers. You may want to group students depending on their skill level since some questions are more difficult than others.
- Think of examples where words are powerful (e.g., speeches, stop signs, directions, etc.). Locate words or passages that you think are powerful in this story to read aloud.
- What events would you want to preserve through writing?
- How are mindprobes similar to books? How does reading or writing allow you to escape from the real world?
- Look at Ryter's definition of literary immortality (p.89). What books or characters do you think have or should achieve literary immortality?
5. Have students present their charts to the class.
Write Your Own Chapter
- Ryter never finishes writing his book. He tells Spaz, “You're the last book in the universe.” Tell students that they will be writing a chapter from Spaz's book. Brainstorm ideas for this original chapter with the class.
- Go back to the charted questions from the previous activity. How will Spaz use writing? Will Spaz write about his future? his past? his relationships? Will Spaz use writing as an escape? as a way to imagine himself back in Eden? Will he use it to gain power? What events would Spaz want to preserve?
- Have students read each other's stories. Students should look to see what purpose writing has for Spaz in their partner's story.
Other Books About Futuristic Repressive Societies
by Ray Bradbury
This timeless classic is about a futuristic society where reading is prohibited and firemen burn books instead of put out fires.
by Lois Lowry
Newly orphaned Kira is taken to live in the Grand Council Edifice because of her skill at embroidery. She struggles to deal with the menacing authority that attempts to stifle her creativity.
by Lois Lowry
December is the time of the annual Ceremony at which each twelve-year-old receives a life assignment determined by the Elders. But Jonas has been chosen for something special. When his selection leads him to an unnamed man — the man called only the Giver — he begins to sense the dark secrets that underlie the fragile perfection of his world.
Other Books by Rodman Philbrick
Freak the Mighty
Max the Mighty
The Fire Pony
The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds: The Donner Party Expedition
The Final Nightmare
The Kid Who Became President
Teaching plan by Gabrielle Nidus