In most dystopian sci-fi novels written for young adults, the heroes have special powers that set them apart. But not the ones in The Last Human by Ink Pieper (the pen name of…well, he won’t say). In the following interview, Mr. Pieper talks about why his characters aren’t superpowered, its comic book and movie influences, and why this dystopian sci-fi novel written for young adults may also appeal to regular adults.
I always like to start with the basics: What is The Last Human about?
So, The Last Human is about a teenager trying to survive as the world collapses around him due to human causes. The narrator, Clay, is the main character throughout, so the reader definitely gets a firsthand look as he attempts to live in this broken world.
Where did you get the idea for it?
The idea started in college. I was taking Greek History and Existentialism, and the Greek History professor liked to teach it with a sort of archeological touch. So, in it we’re, sort of, trying to rediscover this ancient society from the people to the objects and I began to think what would be left in this day and age if the world fell apart. So I finished that initial chapter, which had an existentialist flair…which I wouldn’t have noticed except we were reading The Underground Man in Existentialism. And, actually, we ended up with a test level assignment, which was to write a short story of existential fiction. I’d already completed that first chapter so I simply turned that in and managed an A- out of it. So that worked out pretty well.
The Last Human is part of a growing genre of dystopia sci-fi for young adults. What do you think sets The Last Human apart from other young adult dystopian sci-fi?
I think it’s set apart due to the lack of some special attribute of the main characters and the realism of the story itself. I wanted this to be near future, which I think is much different. 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Hunger Games, and Divergent are all set in the distant future. So I set out to sort of craft a story about the world ending in a way that I could conceive to be possible; so droughts, floods, over-population, etc. All those are very real problems, which are discussed today. The political and military instances, such as biological warfare and some of the foreign relations I mention early on, are grounded in that realism as even today you see Syria using it on their people and Russia and the West battling over Ukraine. People may question the virus and biological warfare in the story, but if we have over-population then Governments won’t want to ruin the resources that exist because they will be needed. The realism makes this story stand out.
As you mentioned, part of that realism is that none of the characters in The Last Human have any special powers. Why did you decide to not have your characters be superpowered?
I wanted anybody who reads it to think that could be them. I wanted the story grounded. If I gave them special cells that counteracted the virus, I don’t think I could have made it as dark as I did. It would just be these privileged people with special powers. And, you know, special powers would sort of remove the reader from the realism I previously mentioned
Were there any times during the writing of the book when you thought, “Oh, this would be so much easier if so-and-so could fly”?
Ha! I did not. Though now that you mention it, all these characters would have had a much happier time if they could. Sadly, though, they would probably have never met and I think they’d all reach their destinations pretty quick. I don’t think I’d have much of a story truth be told. I might have been able to write four pages. “I was in trouble so I flew to ______ in order to escape it.” Might have been a bit brisk.
So why did you decide to write this book for young adults as opposed to just adults?
I don’t think I ever really went decided to. It just sort of fell that way. It is a bit darker than some young adult novels because of how realistic it appears, and I’ve wondered if I was putting the age too low. But then I thought about how The Hunger Games has all that killing and how Twilight has sex and I thought, “Well, I guess young adult it is.”
Did you ever catch yourself starting to write something, only to realize or later think it would be inappropriate or unappealing to young adults?
I definitely wondered about some scenes and some language, but I wasn’t gonna cut it out regardless. The book world doesn’t seem to have much consensus on what’s considered explicit, other than erotica, so while I have some very dark scenes and some language, I thought the primary audience would still be young adult. There were some areas where I went back and removed some “curse-words,” but that was mostly because it didn’t fit the character in that particular instance.
But do you think adults could still enjoy this book, or do you think it’s so aimed at young adults that regular adults would find it lacking?
I definitely think adults would enjoy it. There are a few themes than run throughout the course of the story, such as the misuse of power and living as opposed to just going through the motions and being comfortable,. Y’know, striving for something. I think the misuse of power will play in both adult and young adult realms. The adults can see that in the current political climate where it’s constantly prevalent. And young adults could see the same thing or they could feel that when they’re mistreated by their elders or teachers.
In your bio, it lists ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell’s 1984, and Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta as influences. Which struck me as interesting because most author bios don’t list what graphic novels they’re inspired by, they usually stick to just regular novels.
V For Vendetta influenced me more than any of the others listed. To me, that character, he was going to do what he wanted to in spite of people trying to hold him back. He had this idea and regardless of laws, etc., he was going to attempt to see that idea come to fruition because he perceived the world as flawed. I loved that vigilantism, which is actually a bit funny because my dad is a lawyer and my brother is in law school and here I am thinking laws are more like guidelines anyway.
Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and V For Vendetta are all prime example of dystopian fiction. But are there any works of fiction — and I’m including movies, TV shows, and video games as well as regular and graphic novels — that you consider a big influence on either your writing or The Last Human that are decidedly not dystopian?
Honestly, I’d have to say Harry Potter and Pirates Of The Caribbean. And I know those are both hugely popular, but the playfulness with language that Jack Sparrow uses and just the whole of Harry Potter. That series got me back into reading again.
His Dark Materials also influenced me a lot. I was raised Catholic and that’s one of those books/series that teachers, priests, etc didn’t want you reading because it was anti-Catholicism. This, of course, made me want to read it more. And, once again, you have that anti-authority playing out throughout that series, which resonates with me. A lot of what sticks with me is defying the norm if you feel the norm is wrong or unjust.
Since the novel is called The Last Human, does that mean you won’t be doing a sequel, or are you just going to pull Final Fantasy and do The Last Human II: Electric Boogaloo?
Sadly, this was always planned to be a one off novel. I don’t know that I have the patience to do a series like Harry Potter. Though, there was one specific scene one my friends mentioned after reading it, and I suppose it left me a bit of an opening if I wanted to try it…
Ink Pieper is, obviously, not your real name. Without giving anything away, why did you decide to write The Last Human under a pseudonym as opposed to your real name?
It was mostly for three reasons. One is that my real name is probably one of the most normal names out there, save for John Smith. So I figured I’d try and do something a bit unique. I was originally thinking of trying an anagram, but nothing seemed to fit.
My second thought was that in my day job I’m an intel specialist with the U.S. Navy, and though they post names of those that advanced in rank on Facebook, it’s best to not just announce to the world what my name is, since that links to what I do daily. No one can Google “Ink Pieper and Navy” and get results, you know?
And my last thought was to try and keep it gender neutral so that no one could tell my sex, though that fell by the wayside as it’s quite difficult to do anything without pronouns. I kept having to refer to myself in the third person. Weird. So I ended up keeping the anonymity to an extent, though not completely.
Finally, I usually end my interviews with authors by ask which of their other books they think fans of the new one should check out next. But since The Last Human is your first novel, I’ll ask this instead: If someone likes The Last Human, what other dystopian novels — young adult or otherwise — do you think they’d also like and why?
Well, at some point I’ll be releasing a story called Straight, but we’re a ways a way from that so I would recommend Cloud Atlas. Content wise it’s not terribly close, but it is close to the speculative fiction side of things and has some philosophical and social commentary, which are common threads throughout The Last Human. I’d also recommend The Book Thief.