“This space is a cathedral of the mind. A monument to science.”
Last to Leave the Room is the new dark speculative fiction by Caitlin Starling, the USA Today bestselling author of The Death of Jane Lawrence, which seamlessly blends science fiction and horror into a slow-building thriller.
Last to Leave the Room opens with Dr. Tamsin Rivers, a corporate scientist who is on the verge of a new breakthrough in communication technology. Tamsin works for the shady tech firm Myrica Dynamic in the fictional Silicon Valley-inspired San Siroco.
The city of San Siroco is sinking for unknown reasons, which may or may not be related to research at Myrica Dynamic. Tamsin discovers that her basement is sinking at a faster rate than the city itself. The plot thickens when Tamsin finds a strange door that has materialized in her basement.
Ever the meticulous scientist, Tamsin develops hypotheses around these strange phenomena, making careful observations and measurements to find a rational solution for these mysteries. But her corporate overlords at Myrica Dynamic constantly peer over her shoulder, making sure that she does nothing to tarnish the company’s image.
Last to Leave the Room suffers from inconsistent pacing. The first part of the book is a slog, with far too much focus on Tamsin’s corporate meetings and domestic chores, all of which seem especially tiresome as told in the novel’s unadorned present-tense narration.
Fortunately, Last to Leave the Room takes off as Tamsin discovers a doppelgänger who appears to be a mirror image of herself. The original mystery of the sinking city is pushed aside as the book’s focus shifts toward Tamsin’s double.
The horror elements of the story build slowly, and I found the novel to be quite engrossing in the latter half, which offers plenty of unexpected plot twists. By the end, the novel is hard to put down.
Last to Leave the Room is at its best when Caitlin Starling focuses on questions of personal identity, including which qualities define us uniquely as individual humans. Tamsin’s treatment of identity recalls that of The Double, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s original masterpiece of doppelgänger fiction. Tamsin follows essentially the same character arc as Dostoevsky’s protagonist in The Double: the main character and doppelgänger begin as friends, but then the protagonist gradually loses their identity to the double. Like Dostoevsky, Starling offers a thought-provoking assessment of identity with no clear answers.
The blend of science fiction and horror around a doppelgänger motif also recalls the movie adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. But while VanderMeer considers accelerated mutation within the realm of biology, Caitlin Starling focuses primarily on the physical sciences.
In the end, Last to Leave the Room rewards the patient reader with its unique and thought-provoking fusion of science fiction and psychological horror. However, the novel would benefit from more consistent pacing and a tighter focus on the doppelgänger motif.