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