“Beginnings, no matter how important they are, get forgotten,” writes Roland Hughes in this far-reaching inquiry into mankind’s history, and perhaps, its future. With John Smith: Last Known Survivor of the Microsoft Wars, Hughes pushes the restart button on humanity, setting us down nearly seventy years in the future on a planet with very few people and very little memory of everything that has come before.
Trying to sort it all out is young reporter, Susan Krowley, who has grown up in a post-apocalyptic world that retains only stray remnants of modern technology, and a vague story about the near-annihilation of humanity on November 13, 2013. She’s hoping for answers from the oldest person she’s ever met; at 79, John Smith carries knowledge from the old world that has nearly been lost. Krowley’s interview with Smith provides the structure of the book, and allows Smith to hold forth on topics ranging from Druids and Mayans to terrorism and global warming.
The question-and-answer structure will be familiar to philosophy students, and Hughes’s use of the method aptly recalls Plato. Like the Classical Greek philosopher, Hughes tests theories about the nature of the world and the human beings who inhabit it, and both use Atlantis as a model through which to explore the possibilities.
Hughes lightly develops the relationship between interviewer and subject as their conversation continues, and it becomes clear that Smith is really the one challenging Krowley with his insistence that she understand the context, or “frame of reference” for her questions about the so-called Microsoft Wars. Krowley does become more inquisitive and critical throughout the interview, although many of her queries continue to be simple prompts for Smith to continue his contemplation. Thus their dialogue seldom tells us a lot about their characters, which limits the impact of Hughes’s ideas.
Although Hughes creates a detailed modern science fiction setting—the Human Genome Project, weapons of mass destruction, and anti-gravity science all contribute to man’s fate—the book is less of a science fiction adventure than it is an opportunity for philosophical musings. Readers hoping for something earth-shattering to happen in the pages of John Smith may be disappointed. The seminal event happened in the past, and Krowley and Smith are just here to help us pick up the pieces.
The pieces themselves are intriguing, and Hughes keeps the frequent monologues from dragging by imbuing Smith with a dark sense of humor—speaking of fossil fuels, for instance, he includes humans in the equation (“Humans are useful in a variety of forms. Have they invented a product called petroleum jelly yet?”)—much to Krowley’s dismay. And don’t get him started on economists and MBAs. Smith is an opinionated guy, which helps his forays into history read less like encyclopedia entries and more like impassioned speeches. Some speeches are lengthy, but Smith’s urgency carries the reader along.
The Microsoft Wars, as it turns out, are only a small part of the tale here. Instead of focusing on the final battle, Smith expands his thoughts on the political, economic, psychological, and even mythological forces that may have led to humanity’s demise. What the few people left on earth will make of this history, and how it will affect their future, remains an open question that Hughes, a prolific author, will likely take up in future volumes.
Reviewed by Sheila M. Trask, MS/LIS, through ReviewWorm Book Review Services