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Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine

Some watchmakers are guilty of exploiting the sin of pride. They denote themselves as artists rather than mere craftsmen, and introduce glass panels into the casing of their creations so that those who have the money to buy these extravagant works can not only admire the engineering, but also use the watches as tokens to tell the world of their status. In semiotic terms, the prevailing culture  attributes greater meaning to the watch which becomes more than a mere “teller” of the time. Every society has a discourse devoted to the definition of success. Newspapers, magazines and the visual media project images showing what the successful wear and use. They establish templates for those who wish to demonstrate membership of this social class. In the case of a watch, the normally hidden machinery — the boring bits that twist and twirl to enable the watch to perform its function — must be labelled beautiful in its own right. The thing must become more important than its function and, because of the high price paid for all the labour to produce it, the watch becomes a signifier of wealth and status. Those who can afford such luxury hold themselves out as having taste and discrimination. They are the leaders who build up a set of clothes and other symbols of status to follow the plot and become one with the narrative of success for that society.

In literary terms, a plot is the author’s roadmap to get from the start of the book to the end. In the best writer’s hands, the narrative flows with a “natural” feel. The readers instinctively feel the characters have credibility because they react to fictional events in ways that match our own experience and expectations. Sometimes, the plot must be extremely detailed, say, as in a mystery story where all the clues must be worked in to ensure the detective can solve the crime and catch the bad guy(s). The danger is that this forces characters to act in strange ways simply to enable the plot to come out “right” in the end. I am reminded of John Brunner who wrote a novel as an exact re-enactment of a famous game of chess. The Squares of the City is a wonderful invention until the endgame forces a set of character moves that are somewhat arbitrary in literary terms. Any author can compensate for this distortion of credibility by the quality of the writing or the adoption of other literary devices which distract or pacify the reader in some way, e.g. because aspects of the story pander to the reader’s particular likes. Brunner more or less succeeds overall because it remains a good story despite the ending.

However, when it comes to books like Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine, we have a novel where the plot has become so dominant that absolutely nothing can buy off the readers — it’s like someone wearing an expensive watch on each wrist, thereby demonstrating a lack of true taste. Buyout is a “mystery” story set in a “what if” future world (i.e. not quite a science fiction novel). The result will be strongly polarising. Those that like this kind of puzzle and its solution will say, “Well, gee whizz. Who’da thought it!” and reverently place it on their book shelves. In my case, I was sorely tempted to throw it out of the window. Yes, there is some good writing here. Yes, I recognise the basic set of characters as they begin their journey through the plot. But the subordination of everything to one arbitrary fact contorts the plot into an inevitable death spiral. The critical fact becomes the lever to move the fictional world with everything moving to produce the outcome hinging on that one fact.

Worse, I am not really convinced by the economics of the “what if”. The buyout scheme as proposed in the book allows those convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole, to commit suicide for a money payment distributed as they direct. In the real world, the state uses taxpayers’ money to pay the cost of imprisonment following sentencing by the courts. This applies no matter whether the prison service is publicly owned or privatised. If the latter, the ongoing cost falling to the state will be more significant because the prison operators are for-profit. In the case of young convicts, the total payable will mount up to several million dollars for each individual. This suggests the state would save money by paying the prisoners a proportion of the future costs to commit suicide today and free up the cell for another. Thus, instead of a steadily increasing prison population necessitating the building of more prisons, there can be a steady state of prisoners released on parole or suiciding to free up cells for the newly convicted.

This seems to reverse current economics without any obvious benefit. As it is, current state governments kick the can of future costs down the road to future generations to deal with. Who is to say what will happen to the law or penal policy over the lifetime of any given generation of prisoners. Thus, if the plan as proposed by Irvine were to be adopted, the state government would use existing capital, borrowed funds or a proportion of the existing tax revenue to buy out future costs. The day-to-day operating costs for cell occupancy will stay more or less the same as new prisoners come into the system but, with several million being paid as directed by each prisoner who dies, the budget deficit will inevitably rise. Just as the US will not spend money on preventative medicine because that defeats the vested interests of doctors and hospitals, I cannot see states being prepared to spend additional capital on today’s prison service to reduce potential costs tomorrow.

So, as you will gather, I do not recommend anyone to bother with this book unless they like obscure puzzles and their solution.

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