In Moira Crone’s vision of the future, the one percent are immortal. The U.S. population of 2121 is divided into social strata even more rigidly segregated than the socioeconomic classes of today. The secret to possibly eternal longevity has been discovered, and it’s available for a steep price. With the economy geared almost exclusively toward the preservation and entertainment of “The Heirs,” most live in poverty outside the beautiful cities that house the Heirs. Malcolm is a foundling and a “Not-Yet,” or “Nyet,” a kind of indentured servant to an Heir. Malcolm’s guardian, Lazarus, pays into a trust for Malcolm, so that one day Malcolm can afford to be Treated, to undergo the process that will keep him alive for a very long time. As Lazarus tells him, before sending Malcolm off to complete required training, “This is all just your Prologue!” Malcolm decides that “prologue” means “you weren’t supposed to live now, so you could live later, when you deserved to.” But just as he is about to take the next step towards immortality, Malcolm discovers that his trust is in escrow, and, pursued by men who want to kill him for unknown reasons, he embarks on a journey to find Lazarus and ask him what has become of his trust.
The metaphor of islands and its attendant theme of isolation can be connected to almost every aspect of the book, from the re-imagined city of New Orleans (which, post-Katrina and its fictional successors, has become an island); to the walled cities in which the Heirs live out their centuries-long lives, surrounded by the poor and aging; to the Heirs themselves, who wear over-skins of living tissue, or prodermises, to keep them looking young and to protect them from the environment. The prodermis can be ordered to any aesthetic specification the wearer wishes, but it also prevents the wearer from feeling anything with her real skin or seeing anything with her own eyes. Heirs are so far above the rest of society that it is considered taboo to even touch one of them. They cannot eat real food because of the delicate nutritional balance they must maintain, and regulation of their hormones prevents them from feeling any real pleasure from most sex. The closest thing to pornography for Heirs is a kind of play that depicts death, also known as “the so-long,” or “that dirty awful thing,” which they are simultaneously disgusted by and obsessed with. Malcolm, meaningfully, spent much of his youth as a well-regarded actor in these kinds of plays.
Malcolm, as a traveler on a quest, becomes a navigator of the book’s islands, both literal and human versions of them. He knows that to be immortal is the greatest thing the world has to offer him, but he can’t seem to cut himself off from mortality the way he needs to: he falls in love with a “Nat,” or untreated woman, he longs for physical affection and approval from Lazarus, whom he sees as a father, and he is unable to estrange himself from his brother, Ariel, whose rebellious ways and desire to discover his and Malcolm’s origins threatens to ruin Malcolm’s chances of completing his Not-Yet training. Though Malcolm is not a character who engages emotional sympathy, his version of the hero’s quest and realization as a combination Moses/Oedipus figure unfolds at a steady pace punctuated by compelling revelations.
The richness of the book’s environment is a lot to take in, and for much of the first half I had no choice but to settle temporarily into ignorance of what new terms and situations really meant, and trust that they would be explained in time. This is intelligent science fiction that does not coddle the reader by providing tidy explanations of its novelties in the first fifty pages– but a bit more background up front would have set up Malcolm’s adventures more effectively by making the significance of certain events clearer. For instance, a better explanation of the class system and types of people who inhabit Malcolm’s world would have made his reactions to “Yeareds” and “Altereds” he meets near the beginning of the story more understandable. Too much of the book is too ambiguous or cryptic for it to be as effective as it could be. This becomes especially problematic because of the many side-plots circling Malcolm’s quest to reconnect with Lazarus; it’s hard to understand all the implications of the discoveries Malcolm makes without a stronger baseline understanding of the world and its terminology.
Even so, more than enough meaning leaks through to make it apparent that this is refreshingly original and thoughtful science fiction. The Not Yet is slightly flawed in its execution, but its intriguing premise and philosophical inquiries into the nature of life and death make it a worthwhile read with potential for an equally good sequel, should Moira Crone choose to write one.