By Ari Braverman
In Moira Crone’s new sci-fi parable, The Not Yet, coastal flooding has turned the Gulf South into a wild archipelago. The New Orleans Islands are mostly a playground for Heirs, the decadent ruling class whose lives have been artificially extended for centuries and revolve around entertainment and vapid ritual. Naturals—or “Nats,” the underclass—meanwhile, survive by their wits, serving their wealthy counterparts or squabbling (often violently) over the few resources they have left. Nats are born and die in enclaves such as Port Grammercy and Chef Menteur, among the food, filth and feelings Heirs fear and despise. Twenty-year-old foundling Malcolm de Lazarus is a Not Yet—an indentured servant dedicated to one thing: someday becoming an Heir. When he discovers a lien has been placed on the trust set aside to fund his transformation, Malcolm must travel home to New Orleans, across the Sea of Pontchartrain, through the chaos of the enclaves. As with all heroes’ journeys, travel provides a tableau of experience that forces our champion to face his world—and himself—as it really is.
The Not Yet is a work that lingers after the last page. It’s a bizarre, moving story about the future of a bizarre, moving city. Crone’s combination of cautionary tale and creation myth posits New Orleans as something more than the historical relic many people want to romanticize or save. When we sat down in Washington Square Park last week, I told Crone that her work made my brain feel strange, and I was glad.
Crone will read from The Not Yet at 7 p.m. on Thursday, December 13, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.) as part of Press Street’s eschatonic multimedia/event series, Impending Apocalypse, in conjunction with the Antenna Gallery’s END OF DAYS (As Seen on TV) exhibition.
Room 220: You’re doing a reading as part of Press Street’s Impending Apocalypse event series. Do you consider this to be a post-apocalyptic book?
Moira Crone: The Not Yet is about a world that has deteriorated in a rather radical way, but its apocalypse is really an admission that the wealthiest stratum of society is never going to go away, and isn’t going to pass its wealth to anyone. It’s going to remain, like a ceiling, and because of that the economy collapses in various ways over the next century. I would say theirs is less a cataclysm than a slow abandonment. The consequences are very similar, in that the society no longer has any normal base of support, and everybody is in dire straits, but this apocalypse is more of a slow-moving target.
I do think that it’s probably true that, in a lot of ways, our society is already going through a similar slow rollout of an apocalypse. There are a lot of indications that the country—and the globe, even—people are under a lot of pressure, and we probably are watching this slow rollout of something that may look in history like an apocalyptic moment. I’m talking about global warming, and the end of growth. Growth is not the way you can run a society any longer. The planet is wearing out, and it’s coming back at us. I think it will take a while for people to see what’s happening. Maybe there will be a point when people will get it, but I think it’s going to be hard to get people to see something that’s a little larger than their normal range of concern.
Rm220: Did you try to reflect that perspective in the book?
MC: The setting’s deteriorated environment is part and parcel of the fact that the wealthy Heirs live in these silos or towers or walled cities and don’t have anything to do with the welfare of the general public. Social exploitation and the abandonment of any environmental concerns are related. The ruling class has the idea: “We’ll get away with anything if we have enough money, so we can silo our selves away from the destruction of the planet.” Or environmental degradation. Any system of thinking holistically has been totally abandoned.
Heirs believe they’ve even solved the problems of existence—that people die. They say: “You can iron it out later because we have all these drugs for you.” They believe in this completely material interpretation of reality and want to hold onto that interpretation forever, denying never any other interpretation or version of experience because they “know” it’s all bullshit. And that’s a very modern American attitude. People say there’s no use in therapy because we have drugs. I don’t believe the material solution solves every problem, and the book is sort of about that.
Rm220: Do you think we should place limits on the kinds of non-essential treatments people can get for their bodies?
MC: I think that bioethicists have made some really intelligent decisions so far, and it’s a growing field. They’re very pivotal people because there are decisions that need to be made every day regarding these things, and there is no shared religious culture in this country. I guess I would say that it would be nice if we had some cultural or international consensus. But we would have to have an apocalypse before everybody would wake up and realize that, with all these changing technologies, we need to come to some agreement.
Rm220: Why did it feel important to you to write about New Orleans?
MC: That question became like a cipher for me, the thing that lead me through the book. I set it here partly because it’s a place in which you could portray a future that isn’t so different from the past. I was thinking about slavery and the vast differences between classes in the 19th century. Malcolm is in a condition not dissimilar from slavery, and so are the people from Chef Menteur and the other enclaves in the book.
There’s also a connection between what’s happening here and the state of the American soul in general. New Orleans has always been a place that faces death, and that’s the main difference—psychically—between this city and the rest of the country. Even the kinds of funerals we have here are antithetical to typical American understanding. I think New Orleans is a good place to set this because if there’s any place conscious of its limits—the limits of life and death, and possibly the limits of its own future—it’s here. In New Orleans, these attitudes are closer to those of people who live in the tropics, where death is more sudden and endangerment is more capricious. There’s an understanding you’re here today and gone tomorrow, and that kind worldview arises in part from geography. Americans survive because of their incredible optimism. And they celebrate it because they’ve come to a place with no limits, and with that optimism they have indeed created a great deal. But the downside is that when they do see limits they get ferocious in their denial.
Rm220: Do you think speculative fiction is particularly suited to writing about New Orleans?
MC: People always say New Orleans is behind the times, but a lot of things happen here first that end up happening in the rest of the country. Take coastal flooding, for example. We already went through an apocalypse. Until its reality was actually shown to people in New York, they thought it was absurd, the concept! “Water in the subways? How crazy are you?” We are the canary in the coalmine, but we’re also the soul of America.