A Lethal Cash Injection, In A Prison-Industry-Dominated World

Alexander Irvine's recently-published Buyout takes a chilling look at the justice system and high finance, in a future right around the corner. It turns out crime does pay... but who cashes in?

The year is 2040, and Southern California is pretty much the same — only more so. The weather is hotter, and water is in more demand than ever, especially since the destruction of the Hoover Dam. Racial tensions continue to seethe and, despite ubiquitous surveillance, violent crime is more popular than ever. California's prison population and the annual cost of keeping each prisoner alive has tripled since the beginning of the century. After years of doing nothing useful and still not getting any results, the Legislature privatizes most of the prisons. One of these new companies, ValCorp/KRK Holdings, has lobbied aggressively for changes in state law and now has an exciting new financial opportunity for some of its incarcerated clients.

In 2040, felons with a life without parole conviction, for example kidnapping for ransom or murder with special circumstances (California Penal Code § 190.2, if you're curious), can look forward to an average of fifty-four years of soul-crushing deprivation and crappy food, punctuated by the occasional gang rape. Actuaries figure the cost to keep them housed, fed, clothed, and healthy from incarceration until death is a whopping 36 million dollars each. Market research shows that up to 90% of the inmates in question would rather have been executed than serve their entire terms.

So a private firm, Nautilus Casualty and Property (a ValCorp subsidiary), comes up with a way to solve everyone's problems: the life term buyout. How does it work? Glad you asked. The prison owners are required to keep a portion of that $36M as a reserve to ensure liquidity. Nautilus is prepared to turn over some of that reserve – say, six million dollars tax-free — for the prisoners to distribute however they see fit, as soon as they sign the papers and prematurely terminate their life sentences.

Yes that means lethal injection, and you can't take it with you, but hey — think of the good that money could do for your family, or that of your victim(s). Or you could do something for the community: build a Rec Center for the kids in the old neighborhood, an old folks' home, set up scholarships, or donate it to any charity or organization you want. The lives that have been taken can never be replaced, but now you have the opportunity to make a positive change in the world, to make your life mean something. So how's about it, Killer? What do I need to do to convince you to sign here...today?

And that's pretty much Martin Kindred's new job as Life Term Buyout Facilitator. At first he's shocked by the idea but decides by giving these murderers a shot at a sort of redemption, he'll find meaning in his life too. The metric fucktons of cash he makes off each buyout doesn't hurt either. His best and possibly only real friend Charlie Rhodes, Private Investigator, rolls his eyes at Martin's justifications and is certain all this cannot end well. Charlie, as well as many of Kindred's close family, acquaintances, and even his new bosses were, or are, LAPD officers. Martin grew up with their pragmatic if bitter worldview, so he understands it well... even if he finds it at odds with his own idealisim. Charlie agrees to do some freelancing for Nautilus, digging through information to make sure the buyout candidates have no ulterior motives; not for the cash, as much as to keep his naive younger friend out of trouble.

Of course there's no lack of trouble. From the get-go, organizations spring up to protest the buyouts and harass Martin and his family. Foremost among them is Priceless Life, made up from the strange bedfellows of religious fundamentalists, lefty Social justice activists, and pro-life extremists. It can only be a matter of time before one of them pulls out a copy of The Anarchist's Cookbook. The buyouts further grab the world's attention when a famous Hollywood director convicted of murder, Carl Marks, opts for Nautilus' "Golden Needle," in order to spout his radical politics from the bully pulpit one last time. Martin's marriage is hanging by a thread, and he tries to convince himself he's doing the right thing. When a murder plunges life into further turmoil, Martin Kindred faces a complete nervous breakdown, if not worse, as he desperately digs for the truth about his job and himself.

For all the drama and high-concept,Buyout is a remarkably understated and thoughtful novel. The story is rife with dark humor but Irvine reserves the sharpest of his satiric barbs for the voice of "Walt Dangerfield", self-appointed Gonzo Journalist /Greek Chorus, whose daily podcasts that introduce each chapter and serve as exposition for the world of 2040 at large. At first glance, the cover art reminded me of Richard K. Morgan's very cool Market Forces (I know, I know, don't judge a book...) But you won't find cartoony evil corporations or blockbuster action here. Nor is the technology portrayed much flashier than what we see around us now. Martin wrestles with ethical dilemmas and social issues, not gun-festooned cyborgs. Buyout lacks many of the obvious trappings of a genre novel, but it does what any well-written Science Fiction book should. It makes you think; about life and death, ethics and society, justice and loyalty — and about the cynic and the idealist, and how sometimes they can be the same person.

Published last month by Del Rey, Buyout is in bookstores now. You can purchase Buyout from Amazon, or support your local independent bookseller.

Commenter Grey_Area is known to the next generation of law enforcement, as Christopher Hsiang. Similar to Diogenes, he walks the street with lantern raised high looking for a decent book.