Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine

People endlessly debate and lament the death of science fiction while Alexander C. Irvine’s newest book, Buyout (US, UK, Canada), quietly proves that science fiction is indeed alive and kicking. Irvine’s view into a foreseeable future shows a disturbing vision where the price of a human life becomes very real.

It’s the year 2040 and things have gone bad. Global warming has ruined much of the land, even destabilizing parts of the U.S. Capitalism continues to run rampant and thanks to the wonders of internet and its evolutions, it is a true surveillance society. But Buyout isn’t really about any of that. Martin Kindred is offered the opportunity of a lifetime – to become a new kind of agent at his restructured insurance company. The cost of incarcerating a convicted convict for the rest of their life is huge and in an age of private prisons, it’s an affront to profit. A new charter system allows ‘lifers’ to take a buyout – a predetermined amount of money, typically in the millions of dollars, and distribute it to whoever they want. The price of the money is literally their life. For agreeing to die, criminals get to give a lot of money away – to atone for their sins, provide for family, or whatever. Life has a price and Martin’s life will never be the same.

Buyout began for me as a concept book – a book much more about the message than the story it was telling. The message of course is both very interesting and provocative enough to carry the book – but without emphasis on the story, it could only carry things so far. Somewhere just past the half-way mark, this changed. I had just figured out the only way the book could sensibly end when extra twist began to show. The ending became much less clear (though it turns out I was pretty close) and an interesting thing happened that just hadn’t been present up to this point – I began to care. While I hesitate to say the characters had been mere caricatures, they had seemed to fill a role in a story rather than live. This turned around fairly quickly – Martin suddenly became someone interesting and more than a series of observations from his best friend, Charlie. The meat of Buyout was as present as ever, but the change was that I now cared about what was going to happen.

I suspect that this wasn’t an intentional effect planned by Irvine, but it turns out to be a powerful one. In the first half of the novel, the message was what mattered and it focused my thoughts. The story was a vehicle. Only later did the story jump to the forefront, but rather than supplant the message, the two were able to coexist. The result makes the book more than an interesting (even important) thought experiment, but a truly excellent story – and happening when it did, it caught me off-guard.

As I indicated above, Buyout is a slow start. The characterization feels rather weak with Charlie, through his observations of Martin, standing out as the only one of the bunch that’s interesting. The approach to show so much of Martin through Charlie is interesting and I think ads to the emphasis on message rather than the people in the story. Martin really does come across as a character in a role rather than a human being – which is a thought that has occupied my head for a few days now. Another curious reaction was my confusion of Charlie and Martin – for a good portion of the book I couldn’t keep the two strait. Is this my own laziness and lack of ability to keep names strait (if I meet you, I’ll probably forget your name within the first second of your saying it) or is it a goal of the author to further his point? Or is this due to Irvine switching view points seemingly mid-paragraph and certainly without a clear break in the writing. This is often one of my biggest criticisms of writing – and oddly one that I continually forget to include in reviews – but in this case, it seems intentional.

So, I keep mentioning the message while avoiding discussion of it. This is absolutely intentional. It’s powerfully provocative (which is only surpassed by its provocative power) and one that deserves deep thought and discussion (neither of which I’m particularly good at). What I like best is that Irvine has managed to frame the book around a highly charged issue that can neither be classified as conservative nor liberal. It’s both at the same time. It’s crime and punishment, it’s the right to life, it’s the right to die, and it’s all about the money.

Framing the entire novel are commentaries from an underground radio host that begin each chapter – the rantings of Walt Dangerfield. I love the name, I love what he has to say, and I love the spin it puts on events of the book while simultaneously showing us some of other horrific changes of Irvine’s new world order. It is indeed a brave new world.

Buyout by Alex Irvine caught me by surprise. I was looking for a change of pace and the obvious message behind this book looked to be the thought exercise my brain needed. It proved to be much more. So, science fiction isn’t dead, though it does beg the question of what kind of buyout it could get. 8.5/10


Ahma Daeus said...

A “SINGLE VOICE PROJECT” is the official name of the petition sponsored by: The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP)


The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) is a grass roots organization driven by a single objective. We want the United States government to reclaim sole authority for state and federal prisons on US soil.
We want the United States Congress to immediately rescind all state and federal contracts that permit private prisons “for profit” to exist in the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction. We understand that the problems that currently plague our government, its criminal justice system and in particular, the state & federal bureau of prisons (and most correctional and rehabilitation facilities) are massive. However, it is our solemn belief that the solutions for prison reform will remain unattainable and virtually impossible as long as private prisons for profit are permitted to operate in America.

Prior to the past month, and the fiasco of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and now the “Big Three” American Automobile manufacturers, the NPSCTAPP has always felt compelled to highlight the “moral Bottom line” when it comes to corrections and privatization. Although, we remain confounded by the reality that our government has allowed our justice system to be operated by private interests. The NPSCTAPP philosophy has always been “justice” should not be for sale at any price. It is our belief that the inherent and most fundamental responsibility of the criminal justice system should not be shirked, or “jobbed-out.” This is not the same as privatizing the post office or some trash pick up service in the community. There has to be a loss of meaning and purpose when an inmate looks at a guard’s uniform and instead of seeing an emblem that reads State Department of Corrections or Federal Bureau of Prisons, he sees one that says: “Atlas Prison Corporation.”

Let’s assume that the real danger of privatization is not some innate inhumanity on the part of its practitioners but rather the added financial incentives that reward inhumanity. The same logic that motivates companies to operate prisons more efficiently also encourages them to cut corners at the expense of workers, prisoners and the public. Every penny they do not spend on food, medical care or training for guards is a dime they can pocket. What happens when the pennies pocketed are not enough for the shareholders? Who will bailout the private prison industry when they hold the government and the American people hostage with the threat of financial failure…“bankruptcy?” What was unimaginable a month ago merits serious consideration today. State and Federal prison programs originate from government design, and therefore, need to be maintained by the government. It’s time to restore the principles and the vacated promise of our judicial system.

John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is while the sun is shinning”. Well the sun may not be shinning but, it’s not a bad time to begin repair on a dangerous roof that is certain to fall…. because, “Incarcerating people for profit is, in a word WRONG”

There is an urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of cynicism, indifference, apathy and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.
It is our hope that you will support the NPSCTAPP with a show of solidarity by signing our petition. We intend to assemble a collection of one million signatures, which will subsequently be attached to a proposition for consideration. This proposition will be presented to both, the Speaker Of The House Of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi) and the United States Congress.

Please Help Us. We Need Your Support. Help Us Spread The Word About This Monumental And Courageous Challenge To Create Positive Change. Place The Link To The Petition On Your Website! Pass It On!

The SINGLE VOICE PETITION and the effort to abolish private “for profit” prisons is the sole intent of NPSCTAPP. Our project does not contain any additional agendas. We have no solutions or suggestions regarding prison reform. However, we are unyielding in our belief that the answers to the many problems which currently plague this nation’s criminal justice system and its penal system in particular, cannot and will not be found within or assisted by the private “for profit” prison business. The private “for profit” prison business has a stranglehold on our criminal justice system. Its vice-like grip continues to choke the possibility of justice, fairness, and responsibility from both state and federal systems.
These new slave plantations are not the answer!

For more information please visit: or email:
To sign the petition please visit:


William Thomas
National Community Outreach Facilitator
The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons
P.O. Box 156423
San Francisco, California 94115

Neth said...

hmm...that first comment is spam and I typically delete spam comments around here. But Buyout does deal with private prisons, so I suppose I'll let it stay.

Alex Irvine said...

Thanks for the kind words, Ken. And as far as the comment above goes, it struck me as on-topic enough not to be labeled spam.

Greyweather said...

Great review of a great novel.

As far as the first comment goes, a defining quality of spam is that it is indiscriminate. If that comment was made indiscriminately, then it is a heck of a coincidence.

With regards to the content of said post, having read through both it and the website it hails from, it is quite clear that it is heavy on rhetoric but fails to address the severe prison overcrowding problems that lead to privatization in the first place.


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