A Review of The Only Living Girl on Earth by Charles Yu

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The Only Living Girl on Earth 
by Charles Yu
Everand Originals
January 8, 2021, 43 pages, ISBN 9781094411187

Science fiction writer Charles Yu’s latest work of fiction has been much-awaited ever since he took home the National Book Award for his 2020 novel Interior Chinatown. This screenplay-type work touched on the scathing realities of Asian representation in Hollywood. Clearly, Yu doesn’t shy away from thought-provoking themes, and his follow-up turns the focus over to an imagined dystopian future a thousand years from now.

Released in January 2021, this digital collection of three short stories is set in a fictionalized version of Earth in 3020. Primarily, the story is centered on a character named Jane, who embodies the title of the ebook The Only Living Girl on Earth. While Jane was not born on Earth, her ancestors were, and she’s only there to man a lonely gift shop visited by extraterrestrial tourists who long to feel connected to their roots. Apart from the gift shop—where Jane is from Monday to Friday before commuting 240,000 miles back to her home planet—there is nothing else. No homes, no businesses, and no sign of permanent human life. In this Everand Original, which is also available as an audiobook, readers will soon find that things are not always as they seem.

Piece by piece, the stories unfold to reveal the reasons Earth was left behind in the first place. The artificial intelligence (AI) system in charge of geoengineering disrupted the planet’s food sources, and humans, persevering as they are, took off to pursue life on other planets. Meanwhile, Jane is not as preoccupied as others are about the meaning of life; instead, she’s spending hours at The Earth Gift Shop pondering her life. When she’s not thinking about her upcoming attendance at Jupiter Community College, she’s distressed about her fraught relationship with her mother. Yu writes Jane as somewhat passive and sarcastic, implying we’re not meant to be rooting for her. Instead, for most of the novella, Jane is a relatively neutral vessel, a lens through which audiences can experience the imagined world.

But while Jane may be the only inhabitant on Earth, that doesn’t stop her from receiving two unexpected visitors: Marvin Jones and his son, Matt. Together, they make an unexpected discovery about Earth. The discovery is a poignant metaphor for the human race’s collective illusions—perhaps even delusions—and how we are resilient to a fault when that resilience turns to willful ignorance.

The book explores themes of abandonment and the dark side of humanity’s endless thirst for discovery. Much like Suzanne Young’s novel Girls with Sharp Sticks, it begs the question, “What does it mean to be human?” These works share similarities in that Young’s work is compared to HBO’s Westworld, and Yu was a story editor for Westworld’s first season. Together, these novels challenge the notion of humanness. But Yu’s story, in particular, pokes too close to reality that it carries an unsettling undertone despite its dry humor. Yu is known to defy and challenge previously-held utopian notions; in an interview with PBS News Hour, he cites how the 2016 elections spurred him to rethink the definition of the “American dream” for Interior Chinatown. In The Only Living Girl on Earth, considering the consequences of climate change on the horizon, the definition of “human” may one day be something entirely different. 

At only 43 pages, the length of this work leaves something to be desired. Seeing the story more fleshed out would have been interesting, especially as the world-building feels thin in parts. Still, it creates room for readers to wonder what we are taking for granted and what we can do to remain Earthlings, at least for the next few generations. All in all, The Only Living Girl on Earth serves as a cautionary tale for environmental destruction, the looming tyranny of AI, and the consequences of capitalism that leave us wanting more from Charles Yu.