The Last Gasp | Trevor Hoyle | 2016 | Jo Fletcher Books | 768p | Review copy | Buy the book
In 2016 Gavin Chase is a marine biologist in Antarctica. The seas, and most especially the seas of such a pristine place, will provide the first irrefutable signs of environmental catastrophe. That time is here. Gavin rescues from the ice a Russian scientist on the brink of death. The language barrier prevents meaningful communication but the Russian is able to write down a scientific formula, one that hints at the disaster now facing the planet. The Russian, though, is destined to disappear at the hands of the American authorities and it’s not long before other environmental scientists either vanish or meet an unfortunate, abrupt end. Gavin Chase and his colleagues must deal with the frustration of a world that refuses to listen – that Earth is running out of breathable, safe air. But even Chase would find it hard to believe what is really going on in the corridors of power, until, finally, he has no choice.
The Last Gasp covers a period of about forty years, beginning in 2016 with the first predictions of scientists such as Chase, Binch, Stanovik and Detrick, and the efforts of the American and Russian governments to keep the truth secret or, even worse, profit from it. First published in 1983 and now revised and starting in the present day, the novel focuses on the efforts of a large group of people to do either good or to do evil. If one character could be described as the hero that would be Gavin Chase but we also spend time with his friends, lovers and colleagues, between them making the science accessible to readers.
The science, and the efforts of experts to understand it and confront it, is, in my opinion, the most fascinating and compelling part of The Last Gasp. At times, particularly towards the beginning, there is a great deal of detail about plankton and other organisms with considerably more complex names, but the vast majority of this is perfectly understandable and when these details began to disappear, when the thriller element begins to dominate, I really missed it. Because this is a novel that doesn’t quite know what it is. It has a Jekyll and Hyde feel to it. The science is good – or, at least, it feels authentic and convincing to a lay reader like me – and I would have welcomed much more of it. The imminent environmental collapse of the planet is enough of a theme to carry a novel without throwing in all the other bits and I really didn’t think it needed so much thriller. And I speak as someone who’s a thriller nut.
The apocalyptic science must compete with a thriller element that I found completely implausible and on a James Bond villainous scale. It also dominates far too much of the book. The fact that the science groundwork is so well laid and so detailed makes the thriller bits stand out a bit like a sore thumb. But I suspect that the author was really enjoying himself. There is certainly plenty to shock and horrify here, quite apart from the environmental disaster, and I found myself detesting the main baddies more than almost any I’ve ever read about. There is also gore, violence, depravity, blood and, towards the end, utterly revolting things, which I suspect some people might rather enjoy. It is fun, after all. I think I just wanted more of the science and a rather more dignified demise for the planet.
Having said all that, The Last Gasp is a mighty tome but it is an incredibly fast read, helped along by its jumps in years which move the story along very effectively. While it wasn’t quite the apocalyptic novel I was hoping for, there was enough of it that came close and I was gripped by it. I really liked Gavin Chase. I liked how we followed him and others through the years, watching relationships change and develop, seeing characters come and go (usually going – this is a disaster novel, after all), and watching the Earth get worse and worse. The novel suggests that it’s about the planet running out of air, but really it’s much more complicated than that. Running out of air seems to be the least of the problems faced as we hurtle towards apocalypse. Some of the other things….. I really shouldn’t have been eating when I read some of this.
All in all, The Last Gasp is an immersive apocalyptic science fiction horror thriller that is next to impossible to put down. It might be a little manic and confused at times but it is undoubtedly entertaining with something for everyone. Of course, the true horror of it all is the fact that, although the thriller element seems fanciful at times (although, watching the American election unfold might prove that it’s more believable than it might once have been), the prediction of environmental disaster and collapse does not. We have been warned.