New Taboos by John Shirley
When you’re born and bred in a country, you’re tuned into the social and political system and develop radar on meanings. For example, after only a few sentences, whether written or spoken, it’s often possible to tell which part of the country the person comes from, which class he or she belongs to, what political affiliation he or she has, and so on. But, as an outsider, it’s significantly more difficult to read the runes and decide how to interpret the available information. Of course, in fiction, it tends to be easier because although the characters will be showing off their beliefs, the plot is usually dominant. Except when you come to a chap book like this. When I buy an author’s work, I buy the next title without bothering to research what the publisher has to say about it. When this small offering arrived, I confess to being puzzled. So with great trepidation, I set off into the quagmire which is American politics. Anticipating the worst, I ask all American readers to have a little patience for this old man who knows nothing and understands even less. New Taboos by John Shirley (PM Press, 2013) Outspoken Authors is a collection of a novelette, two nonfiction pieces, an interview and an incomplete bibliography.
“A State of Imprisonment” is what, I suppose, I have to classify as political science fiction with horror overtones. Although, in the traditional sense, moderately horrific things happen in this near future scenario, the main thrust of the novelette is a discussion of the direction in which America’s policy towards the punishment of criminals may progress. It’s set in Arizona. The entire state has been taken over by a large corporation which has converted some 80% of the land into a single continuous prison with the occasional population enclave at strategic locations for prison personnel. By virtue of this specialisation, Arizona has become the lock-up capital of the world. Every state in the union and from around the world now outsources its prisoners to Arizona. Naturally, because this is a for-profit corporation, very few of said prisoners ever see the light of day again. Once you have your inmate population and begin receiving the per diem rate for keeping them, there’s no incentive to let them go unless the corporation can develop more profitable ways of exploiting those behind bars.
Of course, the selection of Arizona is inherently significant not only because of immigration and the somewhat notorious SB1070, but also because of the reputation of the Arizona Department of Corrections in the way it runs the Lewis complex in Buckeye and other max units. So when our heroine journalist is allowed through the gates at the border crossing and starts her guided tour of one unit, she gets invited to see what really goes on. The rest of the story flows naturally from her decision to accept the invitation. Although I find this type of fiction not uninteresting as a window into how opinion-shapers think about social issues like the use of prisons as punishment, this is rather clunky and, by my standards, incoherent. America already has some privatised prison units and there have been a couple of cases in which judges have been convicted of fraud for sentencing people to those units. Judges should not be allowed to hold shares in companies running local prisons. As a capitalist country, it should not be shocking that corporations are allowed to run prison facilities. It’s equally foreseeable that the system is open to manipulation and corruption with the maximisation of profits leading to the poor treatment of the prison population. Naturally, a private corporation would react aggressively if a journalist came into possession of embarrassing information. So, like Walter Mondale, I’m not quite sure where the beef is. Everything in this novelette is a reasonable extrapolation on what we have now. Although it’s unlikely a prison corporation could ever take over an entire state, it’s certainly not unreasonable to speculate that a major chain of prison service assets will be established around the world, offering a menu of everything the local state needs from standard cells to à la carte items like torture to match local customs and beliefs. It’s obvious this is a business opportunity no self-respecting capitalist corporation could resist.
Then the publisher takes me by the hand with “New Taboos” which is a political manifesto calling for the creation and enforcement of a system for social judgement and penalties for those found wanting. This clarifies and expands upon the subtext to the novelette. Intellectually, I empathise with the wish-list of practices to “abhor”. Unfortunately, no matter how desirable the implementation of the social system as proposed, the list is never going to gain sufficient acceptance to become a workable mechanism for modifying behaviour. It’s a shame but these features of human behaviour have become the accepted norms for achieving positions of dominance in our society and no matter how much we may resent the victimisation and oppression that follows, the average citizen remains powerless to make any difference. “Why We Need Forty Years of Hell” is a much more realistic discussion of the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, recognising things will get a lot worse before they can begin get better, i.e. there will hopefully come a time when even the most dimwitted of superrich power-brokers admits the need for a little restraint. We finish off with “Pro Is For Professional” an interview between Terry Bisson and John Shirley which shows the lead author in a favorable light.
Taken as a whole, this is a pleasing exercise in political pamphleteering. As an outsider, I find myself saddened by the label attached to the series. The featured authors are considered “outspoken” as if that’s somehow a “bad thing” in the land protected by the First Amendment. While it may not be mainstream in American, the centrism on display in New Taboos would be considered very uncontroversial in Europe. Perhaps this a radical socialism according to the right in America which is why this independent small press feels to give such views a platform. I can’t say, but I understand the philosophy on display and, as a European, would defend John Shirley’s right to say it.
For a review of a new fiction collection by John Shirley, see In Extremis. There are two standalone novels:
Doyle After Death
and two novelisations called:
Borderlands: The Fallen
Resident Evil: Retribution.