Del Rey, 2009, 319 pages, C$16.50 tp, ISBN 978-0-345-49433-7
There’s no rule saying that Science Fiction has to be predictive, but there’s no arguing that it can be –or, rather, that it’s uniquely apt to suppose a plausible change and follow its consequences. So it is that Alexander C. Irvine’s first original SF novel, Buyout, feels like good old-fashioned Science Fiction with no tricks up its sleeves. Not only is it a gripping read, it takes a premise and runs with it with more style and intensity than you’d expect from old-school SF.
The premise will only feel natural to actuaries: In a medium-term future (2040) where California’s private prison system is (still) bursting at the seams, a company makes a few calculations and ends up figuring that it would be more profitable to execute young prisoners condemned to life without parole and give a huge payout to beneficiaries of their choosing than to keep them around for decades. The ethical implications of this cold equation are… interesting, and one of Buyout‘s pleasures is to see how the argument plays out.
The novel takes place in an all-too-believable future where water wars, omnipresent Internet connections and movie avatars have become unremarkable. Our two viewpoint characters are Martin Kindred, an insurance worker who gets promoted to become the public face of the buyout program, and Charlie Rhodes, a cynical private investigator who recognizes in the buyout program something that can give him steady employment in checking motivations.
Much of Buyout is about dramatizing the implication of the novel’s central premise. How do prisoners petition for buyouts? Who benefits? Is it right? Is it possible for some of that buyout money to do some good? Won’t people deliberately commit crimes that would lead to buyouts, thereby improving their family’s life? What about the possibility that buyouts may end up executing innocent people? In Irvine’s hands, all of this is examined fairly, although not always finely: the inclusion of an activist character calling himself Carl Marks give an opportunity to properly critique his premise as an ultimate instrument of degenerate capitalism, albeit in an all-too-obvious fashion. Politically, Irvine obviously leans left, but he gives some intriguing arguments in favour of his own hawkish premise.
But while Buyout is obviously a novel of ideas (remove the premise, and everything fall apart), it also manages to do much with its characters. Martin is in the terminal stage of his marriage as the novel begins, and the tensions of his position as the buyout spokesman inevitably lead to divorce, with consequent impact on his life and his relationship with his daughters. Meanwhile, Charlie begins to doubt his friend Martin’s motivations as a personal tragedy starts erasing notions of cold dispassionate professionalism. Characterization of secondary characters is sketched with professional skill, and it better be: with a conclusion that pushes both viewpoint characters as far as they can go, subtle nuances become crucial. (On the other hand, Martin’s soon-enough-ex-wife is presented primarily from Martin and Charlie’s perspective… which is to say: not sympathetically. But that’s characterization of a different sort.)
Buyout is also highly enjoyable for its overheated atmosphere, a sunny noir so typical of its Los Angeles location. The nature of its plot brings together a variety of characters from the prisoner, activist, legal and policing communities, with fascinating interactions. Close-enough comparisons can be made with the novels of Michael Connelly, especially given the world-weariness of the characters and the detailed procedural explanation of the buyouts. Snippets from an underground podcaster give us a lot of third-party contextualization, especially when it comes to presenting Irvine’s imagined future and the reactions of the crowd to the ideas that directly affect Martin and Charlie.
Satiric (but not too much), reflective (but not too much) and idea-driven (but not too much), Buyout is not just a good read: it’s also the kind of novel that exemplifies what Science Fiction can accomplish in general, and what it doesn’t achieve when it retreats in the far-futures of space operas that might as well be labelled fantasy. “Old-fashioned” and “Mundane SF” are not criticisms when applied to this novel, not when Buyout plays the classic SF game so well. Irvine’s output since his 2000 debut has been scattered across many genres, but this solid first original SF novel should do much to leave an impression. In the meantime, it’s one of the good surprises of the year so far.