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Literature / The Last Ship

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The Last Ship is a 1988 post-apocalyptic novel by William Brinkley about the fictional USS Nathan James (DDG-80), a United States Navy ship that is seemingly the only survivor of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States.

A 2014-2016 television adaptation, produced by Michael Bay, first aired on TNT in June 2014, although it differs heavily from the book.

The Last Ship contains examples of the following tropes:

  • After the End: The world has been destroyed by a nuclear war. The book chronicles the efforts of the USS Nathan James to find a safe place to settle.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The book ends with the American and Russian sailors preparing to make another voyage in the hopes of finding other survivors of the apocalypse. Unfortunately, as the author died a few years after the book was published, the likelihood of a sequel is slim.
    His voice trailed away. We started down the hill and made our way toward Pushkin, her two ensigns fluttering in the cold wind that had begun to come off the ice cap, the ship ready to cast off on her voyage to rediscover the world… But that is another book.
  • Anti-Mutiny: Technically, the captain's actions are against protocol, but he is justified because it's unclear who, if any, survives to give orders. Nevertheless, Chatham believes he is right to return to America against the captain's wishes, and he manages to convince a third of the crew to agree.
  • Apocalypse How: Either a Class 2 or Class 3A-aside from some scattered groups of ailing survivors in the western Mediterranean that are clearly doomed, every place the ship visits is totally devoid of human life either from nuclear strikes or fallout. The crew see some wildlife dying from radiation in Africa, which may push it to a Class 4.
  • Babies Ever After: The chaplain considers it providential that there were women on board, to allow for the repopulation of humanity. The captain generally agrees. In the end, the American men are all implied to be infertile due to radiation, and for a long time it is believed the women are as well, though the science is less clear on that point. It is not until the very last page that three babies are born, fathered by the Soviets who were on a submarine and hence unaffected; the symbolism of the new generation being literally born from the two crews coming together makes for a fitting ending.
  • The Captain: The main character is Thomas, who is the commanding officer of the Nathan James.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Antarctica. Even borders on Chekhov's Gag after the jokes about penguins inheriting the earth.
  • Chromosome Casting: Averted for the main cast - in fact, the presence of women is quite plot-relevant, as the Captain makes clear in the prologue - but this trope applies for the Pushkin, which has no women (as one would expect from a Soviet ship of this time period).
  • Deserted Island: Forms the setting for the opening of the novel, before a flashback explains how they got there.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: The aftermath of the nuclear war leaves virtually no place on Earth untouched. The protagonists even contribute to the end by nuking the Soviet city of Orel.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The Nathan James encounters the Pushkin, a Soviet submarine, who decide to team up with the Americans to find a new home for their crews.
  • Hello, Sailor!: Horny Sailors notwithstanding, this trope is apparently averted for the men - but the women, who have their own section of the ship, show a bit of Situational Sexuality.
  • Hope Spot: The message from Bosworth, Missouri, which turns out to just be automated. Worse, it's implied to be a factor that caused Chatham and the others to leave.
  • Ironic Nickname: "Noisy" Travis, the carpenter who almost never speaks.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: When the crew of the ship report that they successfully carried out the strikes on their targets, the reply from US Navy command turns into gibberish midway through, implying that they were destroyed by a nuclear strike mid-message.
  • The Last Title: The title.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Downplayed. There are no accidental pregnancies on board the ship, but once the crew settles the island with the goal of having babies, there are now no pregnancies even though they would have been welcomed. This is because the men have become sterile due to radiation.
  • Misguided Missile: Disgusted by the horror that the nuclear war has brought upon the world, some of the ship's crew decides to get rid of the ship's missiles by launching them without the captain's permission. However, one of the missiles detonates in mid-air, destroying the ship.
  • Monumental Damage: When the Nathan James steams up the River Thames, through the irradiated fog can be seen the charred ruins of London and Big Ben.
    "Anyhow, we found something out. The exact time. It had to have been just after the noon hour. Everyone must have been Christmas shopping. Big Ben."
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The exact date is never given, but it is implied that the story is set in the near future as the ship's number is DDG-80 (the real-life ship bearing that designation, USS Roosevelt, was launched in 1999) and the ship has female sailors (in the 1980s when the book was written only male sailors served on U.S. warships).
  • Only One Name: The main character, who is the captain of the ship, is known only as "Tom" or "Thomas", with his last name never being revealed. This is curious, as in the military, most people are known primarily by their last name.
  • Out with a Bang: When exploring a French ship that was hit by high doses of radiation, Thomas comes across two dead bodies in a bed, killed instantly by radiation given off by a nuclear explosion. They were still frozen in the position they had while having sex.
  • Precision F-Strike: When the ship's officers are arguing with each other in the wardroom, the captain delivers one of these and then subsequently apologizes for doing so.
    "And if everyone did, is anyone suggesting we start some sort of fucking treasure hunt to find as many of those pockets as we can before our fuel runs out and we end up wallowing in some sea somewhere?"
  • The Reveal:
    • When Thomas meets with the captain of the Pushkin, the Soviet captain tells him that he hails from Orel, the very same city Thomas' ship nuked.
    "A place called Orel. You probably never heard of it."
    • It is implied in the same conversation that it was nuked by the U.S. because it believed the Soviets kept nuclear weapons there, but the Soviet captain reveals that those nukes were moved out of the city before the "war" so the U.S. inadvertently ended up nuking it for no reason.
    • For his part, the Soviet captain reveals he nuked the U.S. naval base in Rota, Spain.
  • Serial Killer: Because there are some suicides and accidental deaths as well, it takes a long time for anyone to realize that there is also an active murderer on the ship. It turns out to be Selmon, the radiation expert, who has been gradually killing off women because of a belief that humanity does not deserve to reproduce and live on into the future.
  • Sex Signals Death: The captain and one of his officers have sex in a cave. Said officer is killed when they attempt to jettison the ship's nukes and accidentally end up detonating them, destroying the ship.
  • Sexy Priest: Chaplain Cavendish, who in fact joined the Navy primarily to avoid the temptation to break his vows of celibacy - a temptation he has to face once again when the Navy begins to integrate female sailors.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: The story is set in the late 20th century, when the U.S. Navy is integrating female sailors onto its warships, amidst heated opposition from many of the navy's male officer corps. Being an old-timer with antiquated (and somewhat sexist) views towards gender norms, Thomas is strongly against the navy's move, feeling a paternalistic attitude towards women, that they should be protected and would not make good sailors anyway. By the end of the book, he sees the error of his ways and comes to realize that the female sailors of his ship were an invaluable and beneficial asset that contributed to the ship's success and survival:
    [I]t worked out considerably better than I had foreseen. The doom and gloom predicted by many Navy men, myself among them, for ships with “mixed crews” was not forthcoming. Certainly not on my ship, or on any ship of which I had knowledge. For, I believe, a number of reasons. To start with: As it is true, by a process akin to natural selection, that the very best men and officers in the Navy make certain that they go to sea while the worst just as diligently seek out a “dry” career, earnestly managing never to set foot off the land onto blue waters—an odd, forever incomprehensible sort of sailor to my mind—such was true also of the women when the Navy began to send a certain number of these to sea. We got the best.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The captain speculates that this was the case for the people who tried to destroy the Tomahawk missiles, inadvertently sinking the ship and contaminating the island in the process.
  • World War III: Between the United States and the Soviet Union, although it doesn't last very long thanks to the very heavy use of nukes.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: After getting a message from the US Navy high command that turns out to be automated, the crew conclude that the area that was once the United States is most likely completely uninhabitable. Nonetheless, a faction of the crew insists that there must be some hospitable areas left, and they take some rafts and the captain's gig to go on what is most likely a futile journey.