SF author Alexander C. Irvine told Tor.com that his latest novel, Buyout, is about a man named Martin Kindred who gets a once-in-a-career offer to become the public face of a charter program to introduce life-term buyouts to a string of private California prisons.
“What’s a life-term buyout? That’s when someone walked into your cell where you’re serving life without parole and says, ‘Hello, Mr. Prisoner. It is going to cost us many millions of dollars to keep you in this six-by-nine cell for the rest of your life. How about we take some of that money that we would have spent imprisoning you and give it to you today? All you have to do is take the needle tomorrow,’” Irvine said in an interview. “Martin believes in the power of buyouts as a vehicle for criminals to atone for their crimes, but he gets into a deep ethical swamp when his desire to nail the person who killed his brother seduces him into bending the rules on a particular buyout. That’s when he starts to figure out that not all is as it seems, both with his brother’s murder and the buyout program in general.”
An ongoing subplot in the book is the side effects of the creation of a pure surveillance society, in which everyone can pretty much know what everyone else is doing all the time. “Wireless and surveillance saturation means that nobody has anything like privacy, but it also has an interesting unintended consequence—unless you’re doing something really interesting, nobody cares, which in the end is a kind of privacy despite the constant electronic intrusions into every aspect of daily life,” Irvine said. “I imagined municipal zones in which wireless coverage is jammed, creating oases of electronic silence in the middle of this intense citywide blanket of surveillance and info-bombardment. Some critical moments in the book take place in these zones, which evolve odd subcultures.”
Irvine said that he responded to the themes of the book because has a visceral response to the ways in which human beings and the time of their existence on the planet are increasingly commodified. “Prisoners, whose labor is used to produce all kinds of things in the United States, are certainly commodified, most particularly in private prison networks,” he said. “There, prisoners are what makes for healthy share prices. I have a deep unease about the nakedness of this transmutation of human beings into engines of shareholder value, especially given the issues of power and control that exist in the corrections industry as we have it. So the book is philosophical in that sense, but it’s also personal because Martin and his best friend Charlie are working through their own answers to a series of questions about right and wrong that I don’t have good answers for. Buyout is, in one way, an attempt on my part to work through my own thoughts about the tricky ethical problems that would be provoked by something like life-term buyouts.”