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The Last Book in the Universe

Share Education World celebrates National Children's Book Week with a review of an exciting new futuristic book for young adults from Rodman Philbrick, author of Freak the Mighty. In The Last Book in the Universe, Philbrick presents a chillingly believable society in which books and storytelling have all but disappeared, leaving people cut off from their past and therefore from the future.

"If you're reading this, it must be a thousand years from now. Because nobody around here reads anymore. Why bother, when you can just probe it? Put all the images and excitement right inside your brain and let it rip. There are all kinds of mindprobes -- trendies, shooters, sexbos, whatever you want to experience. Shooters are violent, and trendies are about living in Eden, and sexbos, well you can guess what sexbos are about. They say probing is better than anything. I wouldn't know because I've got this serious medical condition that means I'm allergic to electrode needles. Stick one of those in my brain and it'll kick off a really bad seizure and then -- total mind melt, lights out, that's all, folks."

-- from The Last Book in the Universe, by Rodman Philbrick

Book Cover Image From the first lines of The Last Book in the Universe (The Blue Sky Press), the reader knows he or she is in a very different world. In this impressive new young adult novel, Rodman Philbrick provides a convincing look at a bleak future society in which local "latchbosses" use gangs of thugs to maintain power over select sections of the "Urb" -- the ruins of a former great city. Many people are homeless, many children have no families, and a great many of the Urb's inhabitants escape the bleakness of their lives with mindprobes -- addictive devices that allow users to experience the illusion of different realties. Because of the immediate gratification offered by the mindprobes, there is no need for books or stories, until one old man full of hope shows one young man full of despair the importance of one's own story in remembering the past and imagining the future.


The book's unlikely hero is a teenaged "deef" -- a denigrating term for someone who is defective -- who had previously been banished from his home. His foster father feared the epileptic seizures to which the boy, known only as Spaz, was prone. Spaz now lives in a different section of the Urb and survives by stealing for the local latchboss. His life changes when he is sent to rob a "gummy" -- an old man -- known as the Ryter.

The old man is "even poorer than most of the curb people," but Spaz finds him intriguing. The Ryter sees Spaz's epilepsy -- which prevents Spaz from being able to use the mindprobes -- as a gift rather than a curse. The Ryter is also writing a book, an activity that Spaz dismisses as a waste of time because "Nobody reads books anymore." When the Ryter answers that he is writing for those not yet born, who may live in a future time when reading is again popular, Spaz is skeptical:

"There's only room for the right here and the want-it-now. The future is like the moon. You never expect to go there, or think about what it might be like. What's the point if you can't touch it or steal it or shoot it into your brain?"

The Ryter's ideas, although unsettling and irrational to Spaz, nevertheless get him thinking. He realizes that his sense of the past is much stronger than that of most other inhabitants of the Urb, whose long-term memories have been adversely affected by the mindprobes. When Spaz receives an ominous message that his beloved foster sister, Bean, is dying and wishes to see him one last time, Ryter joins Spaz on the dangerous and forbidden quest to the other end of the Urb.


Great Teaching Themes!

The Last Book in the Universe is a great choice for a reading list or even for reading in class, at the middle school level. The novel will prompt a wealth of discussion and essay topics, including

* the role of the outsider in society

* the ways literacy and education can help alleviate the negative effects of poverty

* the reasons mind-altering substances are so prevalent

* what, if anything, technologically superior societies should do to help people who lack technological resources

Philbrick, whose earlier young adult novels include the much-acclaimed Freak the Mighty, is adept at combining tense and suspenseful scenes with more descriptive segments that vividly portray the levels of degradation to which the people of the Urb have fallen. Early on, when Spaz, Ryter, and Little Face, a young, speechless street urchin who follows them on their adventure, pass through the latch controlled by latchboss Mongo the Magnificent and his gang of Monkey Boys, Ryter finagles an audience with the elusive Mongo. Instead of the fearsome leader, they find a mindless shell of a man, destroyed by his addiction to the mindprobes.

"Lying on the bed-throne is a shriveled, starving creature soaked in his own filth. Most of his hair has fallen out and lies in a fuzzy pile around his head. His teeth are gone, and his eyes are milky blind. I can barely make out the faded red monkey tattoo on his withered chest. At first glance you might think he's dead, but he isn't -- not quite. His fingers twitch a little, and his mouth works, as if he's trying to speak, and you can see where veins pulse weakly in his scrawny neck."

Before long, the heroes make a startling discovery: The mindprobes that are helping to destroy any hope that the Urb dwellers can ever improve their lives come from outside the Urb, from a place called Eden.


Along the way, a girl named Lanaya befriends Spaz, Ryter, and Little Face. Lanaya belongs to a group of people known as "proovs," genetically engineered, or improved, humans who live in the hidden paradise called Eden. Although the normals, the non-improved people of the Urb, may not enter Eden, Lanaya takes pity on Spaz's sister, Bean, and brings them all into Eden in the hope of finding a cure for the girl.

Nothing Spaz has ever seen has prepared him his first glimpse of life outside the Urb:

"'The sky is gray,' I say, 'Everybody knows that.'

'In the Urb,' she says, 'because of all the smog. In Eden the sky is blue and the ground is green.'

I figure she's pulling my leg. Ground is dirt or concrete, everybody knows that. I figure in Eden the concrete won't be cracked and the dirt won't stink, but why would everything be painted green? It doesn't make sense.

But I'm wrong, flat wrong. After we pass through the Barrier that separates the atmospheres, Lanaya stops the takvee and opens the hatch. 'See it with your own eyes,' she says. 'Why I'm always happy to come home.'

The three of us stand in the open hatch and look up at the sky. It's so blue and clear, it makes my eyes water. Then I realize my eyes are weeping because they've never seen anything this beautiful. I never thought about it before, but in the Urb the sky is so close that sometimes you think you could reach up and touch it. Here in Eden the blue goes up forever and you suddenly realize that the sky is much, much bigger than the earth below. And it's more that that: Seeing so far makes you know there's a world outside the world, and a sky beyond the sky."

In Eden, where learning and culture still survive, a cure is indeed found for Bean, but, fearful of the normals and all that they represent, the proovs banish the travelers from Eden and sent them home to Urb -- not, however, before the illicit manufacture of mindprobes is addressed by the Masters of Eden.


Science fiction is more than escapist fantasy or depressing dystopian visions. Practitioners of the genre often have the ability to describe common events and ordinary people so that they appear to be uncommon and extraordinary. If the events or people portrayed in the book are at all upsetting or disturbing, a futuristic or otherworldly setting may help young readers distance themselves from these elements and more safely examine them.

The scariest thing about the horrendous life of the normals in The Last Book in the Universe is not the possibility that this society may someday exist but that, on some level, it already does. The mindprobes that Philbrick describes aren't real, but most high schoolers can name several addictive, mind-destroying substances that are. People live with conditions such as epilepsy and regularly experience the fear and disapproval of society. The mastery of genetic engineering to the degree that it could produce a society of proovs may still be a dream, but ethical debates surrounding current genetic research already occur. Literacy and reverence for the written word often takes a back seat to the more immediate rewards offered by film, television, and video games.

It is worth noting that despite the dismal world of the Urb to which Spaz returns, there is a sense of hope at the end of the book. Young Bean has been cured, the supply of mindprobes has been eliminated, and there is a sense of a future that Spaz had earlier denied. Spaz also comes away with a sense of the importance of memory and of his own and other people's stories.

Rodman Philbrick has written more than two dozen books. Find out more about Philbrick and his work at

The book highlighted this week is available in most bookstores. If you are unable to locate the book, ask your bookseller to order it for you or contact the publisher directly:

  • The Last Book in the Universe, written by Rodman Philbrick, is published by The Blue Sky Press, a division of Scholastic Inc. For additional information, call 1-800-SCHOLASTIC.

Lauren P. Gattilia
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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