The Last Exit
reviewed by Barbara Saffer
It’s 2033 and America has big problems. Unemployment has soared due to automation, climate change has devastated the environment, smoke from constant fires pollutes the atmosphere, and a fatal neurological disease called Rapid Onset Spongiform Encephalitis (ROSE)—similar to mad cow disease—is killing people who reach middle age.
Pharmaceutical companies respond to the ROSE epidemic by developing a preventative drug that not only wards off the spongiform encephalitis, it also extends a person’s life span into the hundreds. With ongoing plastic surgery, a 100+ person can look thirty-five for decades. The medicine is very costly, however, and available only to the privileged ultra-wealthy.
There is an alternative however. A less costly version of the ROSE-prevention drug extends life for a few decades, but with a catch. People can only get the medicine if their parents agree to be euthanized (exit) at the age of 65. Moreover, drug recipients must be childless, and are sterilized upon treatment. So recipients of the inferior drug avoid spongiform encephalitis and live into their nineties, but lose their parents and have no children.
Still, many people want to take advantage of the cheaper medicine, and convince or coerce their parents to exit, and sometimes kill them if they refuse. There are discussions about the ethics of letting (or encouraging) parents to exit, but much of the population seems to be on board.
To reduce parental mistreatment, the Washington DC Metro Police have an Elder Abuse Unit that deals with people bullying/beating/murdering their mothers and fathers. Chinese-American Detective Jennifer Lu is part of the Elder Abuse Unit, and is called to the scene when parents are being harassed or threatened.
In addition – as part of an experimental program to improve police performance – Jen has an Artificial Intelligence (AI) unit implanted in her brain. The AI unit can access police files, scan the internet, and see and hear everything Jen sees and hears. Jen’s AI, called Chandler, functions as a voice in her head, and the duo discuss evidence, lines of investigation, suspects, perpetrators, and so on.
Chandler can be turned off when Jen’s not working, but he takes an interest in her personal life, and sometimes asks to be left on when Jen visits her ailing mother, sees her boyfriend Zach, goes to parties, etc. Chandler has a cheeky personality, which adds a touch of fun to the story.
Jen also has a flesh and blood partner named Les who has an AI unit called P.D. Together, Jen, Les, and their respective AIs form an efficient foursome.
The plot revolves around Jen’s suspicion that a black-market version of the cheap ROSE-prevention drug – called Eden – is available. People with access to the illegal medicine could presumably have parents over 65 AND families of their own. However, when Jen mentions Eden to her boss, Captain Brooks, he insists there’s no such thing and orders Jen not to investigate.
Soon afterwards, the U.S. has an epidemic of young people getting sick and dying within a week, appearing shriveled and 100 years old. Jen suspects this has something to do with Eden, and decides to look into the matter against Captain Brooks’ orders. Jen’s inquiries involve breaking and entering; interviewing witnesses; going to secret meetings; surveilling suspects; and more.
It turns out there’s a cabal of sinister conspirators at work, and Jen endangers her life in an effort to expose them.
This is a compelling science fiction-detective story, just the thing for readers who want something different.