THE NOT YET
By Moira Crone
UNO Press, $15.95
It’s more than 100 years in the future from today. The United States is a thing of the past, but its cities mostly remain populated. New Orleans has been inundated by rising sea levels so that it is now just a series of islands. It is on one of these islands that Malcolm De Lazarus was reared, a foundling taken in by a benefactor who is an “Heir” — a being who has benefited from long-ago advances in medicine, genetics and technology to become virtually immortal.
Malcolm aspires to become an Heir himself, and has attained the status of a “Not Yet,” one who will undergo the extensive medical procedures which will transform him from a “Nat” into an Heir. As Malcolm’s benefactor, Lazarus, tells him, “And this is all you have to know for now: there are two kinds in this world, those who are certain they will not last, and those with wonderful lives, and every reason to hope for eternity, like me: we are Heirs, or for slang, “T’s,” for ‘Treated.’”
And being an Heir is the top of the heap in LSU professor Crone’s polarized society of 2121. Things have not exactly deteriorated into chaos. No one seems to be starving, but the Heirs live in walled-off communes separate from the lesser castes who serve them. The needs of the Heirs must be met, but there is a stringent code of conduct that regulates interaction between the Heirs and the other castes. Nats can’t touch Heirs, physically. Nats can’t question statements Heirs make and must obey their orders. If an Heir is injured in any way, an implanted alarm goes off and summons a medical team on a helicopter. Heirs use Nats to provide their care, and if an Heir dies for any reason, his/her attending Nats are blamed and punished.
Because they are treated, Heirs eat only special foods called “brosia,” and precious little of that. Heirs no longer have children. Why would they? No one need carry on for them, they can do it themselves. Nat procreation is strictly regulated. Nats have to have a license to have a child. They can sometimes have children because, unlike Heirs, Nats still die and get killed. They have to be replaced. But only replaced not multiplied.
The Nats live in enclaves, and Heirs refer to them by their enclaves’ names such as “Free Wheelers,” “Chef Meneturians,” “Port Gramercerians” and more. Some of these Nats embrace “The Cycle,” and accept that dying is a natural conclusion to life. This is good, because without the sponsorship of an Heir, almost no one can become even a Not Yet. “The only difference between Nats and Heirs is the Trust,” Lazarus tells Malcolm. “To be an Heir, you must be Treated, and to be Treated, you need a Trust. Money. It’s best to start building one as soon as you can.” How little things have changed after all.
Lazarus sends the young Malcolm off to a career as an actor in the “sims,” a kind of theater that Heirs love. The money Malcolm has earned has been placed in his trust. The code number is engraved on a sort of torc Malcolm wears around his neck. He’s all set for his “Boundarytime,” the first ceremony in the process of becoming an Heir. Then Malcolm finds out that his money is in escrow. The bank will tell him only that he should “Ask your Trust Executor.”
So Malcolm heads back to New Orleans to find out what is going on. His quest leads him to enclaves and even to outlier settlements in the boondocks outside civilization — in Mississippi. Along the way, Crone weaves a story of family, love and honor in an age in which such notions are viewed as archaic.
The words Crone puts in the mouths of her 22nd century Nats and Heirs is marvelous. The truncated words will remind readers of the Anglo-Russian slang, Nadsat, that the “droogs” used in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. It’s not an argot, though, it’s English, even if it is a bit perplexing at times. Another similarity to Burgess’ book is that while it’s set in the future, Crone’s book is really about now. The questions of privilege and class, allocation of resources and reproductive rights are not things to come, they’re today’s political issues. We’re not yet to the point of Heirs and Nats, but the gap in life expectancy between members of rich societies and members of impoverished societies is startling. A license to procreate is not an abstraction. Ask the Chinese.
What Crone has combined is wry social commentary in the vein of Swift or Voltaire with a dystopian coming-of-age tale. It’s a brilliant book full of adventure and humor and no small amount of pathos. Best of all, Crone uses her book to ask what it means to be human, a question all us Nats need to keep asking ourselves.