Our jobs can be challenging in a multitude of ways. A cranky boss, a cramped office, weird hours, an excess of convention, monotony, stress, infinite commutes, too much down-time, automation, dull co-workers; perhaps, for some, brain-blisteringly complex rocket-ship fuel problems demanding our attention. But I suspect most readers of this review are employed in ways enviably less difficult than one Martin Kindred, the protagonist of Alexander Irvine's highly enjoyable and gut-smart new novel.
Martin facilitates buyouts.
The second definition offered by the on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary for the novel's title is "a financial incentive offered to an employee in exchange for an early retirement or voluntary resignation." The phrases "early retirement" and "voluntary resignation" take on a darkly euphemistic meaning in the context of the novel's central premise. This is, by the way, one of those premises that shows how High Concept can also be Thought-Provoking Concept.
In 2040, the corporation Nautilus Casualty and Property pioneers a creative solution to the California maximum security penitentiary situation. Actuaries show that the average inmate commits a crime at the age of twenty-six and lives to be over eighty. Throughout that cozy half-century span said inmate will need to be fed, clothed and housed in his or her six-by-nine cell, as well as provided with medical care. The net cost is huge, and to federally ensure liquidity a percentage of that cash needs to be kept on hand. So here's the deal: if the inmate agrees to be finalized now, instead of waiting out their actuarially morbid fifty-plus years of solitary, Nautilus will disburse that liquidity-demonstrating percentage of cash—which turns out to be a whopping five million dollars—to whomever the inmate wishes. The prisoner gets to exercise "control, after his control has been taken away," to direct the huge sum of money towards the atonement of his deed, and the company becomes more liquid and attractive to investors. A clear win-win for everyone.
Well, maybe except for the guy being finalized.
Martin Kindred's job consists, primarily, of ensuring the legitimacy of the buyouts by interviewing the inmates and then actualizing the disbursements to the chosen organizations, families, victims, and so on. Not exactly your regular insurance desk job, to be sure. It's a task riddled with moral quandaries, not the least of which is earning one's living by facilitating the end of other human lives. To Irvine's credit, before even accepting his new position, Martin is depicted with sufficient ethical sensitivity and social perspective to be attuned to these dilemmas but not to be stymied by them. (Victor Eads, one of the characters pushing for the buyouts, declares that "'This isn't philosophy, Martin. [ . . . ] We're not in a world that can afford to be high-minded.'" (p. 9) Fortunately for us, as far as the novel goes he's wrong on both counts.)
It's a fine balancing act. As we enter the tale Martin is somewhat estranged from his wife. Despite this lack of emotional clarity, he is not oblivious to the pitfalls of his job. The more enmeshed he becomes in the buyouts, the better he becomes at rationalizing them to himself. Is he gaining clarity, or pursuing his career with greater single-mindedness as a coping mechanism for the pain that ensues from the collapse of his marriage and the non-accidental death of a family member? What is he out to prove, if anything at all, and to whom?
Irvine's decision to devote at least as much energy to Martin's interior predicament as to its exterior resolution makes it easy for us to psychologically engage with Martin's plight. We are able to identify with his justifications even as other elements—namely, Martin's world-wise and tech-savvy friend Charlie Rhodes—act as grounding influences, holding him partially in check. This inner character struggle is one of the sources of the novel's surprisingly pensive quality.
Other characters are also complex and realistic. Though filtered through Martin's alienation, his wife Teresa is fully rendered, as are his daughters. Charlie Rhodes completes a credible yet unexpected psychological journey of his own, one that not only brings the novel's second, plot-heavy half to a satisfying climax, but one that provides a pleasant counterpoint to Martin's. On the whole, the character's decisions spring directly from their various collisions with the narrative premise, and the consequences of their choices translate that premise into an engaging, thriller-ish plot.
I say thriller-ish because Buyout doesn't exactly read like a thriller or crime novel. I mentioned a pensive quality. Irvine's chosen voice has a detached, observational component that goes beyond a thorough examination of the social and metaphysical ramifications of the buyouts. It is introspective beyond the strict needs of the storyline, without ever losing sight of it. Imagine Max Barry's caustic near-future thriller Jennifer Government (2004) with more believable characters, as fully-fleshed in their motivations, for instance, as the key players in the second volume of Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias trilogy, The Gold Coast (1984).
The novel gains in suspense after a tragic event roughly at the mid-point. It depicts a post-catastrophe high-tech-enabled surveillance society which, if a little de rigueur in its near-future-extrapolation assemblage, remains plausible and doesn't distract.
There's more to like in Irvine's book. I've touched on craft. His descriptive technique is accomplished and tempered; not bare enough to qualify as hardboiled or noir, and not so rich that it congests the action. He's particularly strong with dialogue and conversational rhythms, managing to deliver a lot of expositional material therein and thus avoid infodumps in a stocking-sized novel that could have easily been stuffed with bricks of them. Here is a sample of the description, occurring early on, in which some major players are introduced:
Martin thought Eads looked like an uglier, older version of his boss, the state's junior senator and self-proclaimed 'law-and-order fundamentalist.' The senator himself affected cowboy gear and cowboy pronouncements that would have embarrassed John Wayne, to whom he bore a cultivated resemblance. Next to Eads, bookending a leather couch out of the 1990s, were a matched pair of Executiva californiensis: tall, athletic, tanned, and wearing several thousand dollar's worth of tailored clothing. 'And this is Scott and Jocelyn Krakauer,' Santos finished up. 'They're the ones who really wanted to talk to you.' (p. 4)
Details like "Executiva californiensis" serve not only to inform us of Martin's detached perceptual experience, but to add a flavor of satire. Buyout is not as headily satirical in intent as genre standout works such as Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1953) or Search the Sky (1954) and Gladiator-at-Law (1955), but it does share some of their potency in its ability to raise concerns and comment on existing trends. The former works tend to use their conceits to deconstruct the viability of the social terms on which they're erected, or in the words of critic Roger Luckhurst, "to turn capitalist systems against themselves." (Science Fiction, p. 113). Irvine's approach is more low-key and better suited to his storytelling ends. He wisely reins this aspect in and instead lets the characters pick sides without himself omnisciently doing so.
The voice is also mature, confident. Irvine is not one to belabor his points, as evidenced, for example, by his use of “et cetera” to end this scene in Chapter four:
Jocelyn had been so easy to work with, and so willing to pay him what he asked, that he had the discomfiting sensation that she thought she was buying more than Charlie had in fact meant to sell.
But that was a problem for another time, and forewarned is forearmed, et cetera. (p. 35)
Another success lies in the novel's plot resolution, which works well as the end of a mystery, and even better as the end of an SF novel, illuminating aspects of the buyouts we had previously not considered.
There are minor flaws. The pacing in the earlier sections is too slow. Martin attends the first execution and completes the first disbursement, and all the while we wait for something to go horribly wrong. It doesn't. He repeats this a second time. Ditto. But, to be fair, Irvine compensates with some neat societal extrapolations in these chapters, and steadily builds the tension between Martin and his family until things do start going terribly off kilter. Also, his writing is so easy to read that we barely have time to notice the drag.
In between chapters, we are treated to the free-ranging, almost stream-of-consciousness musings and tirades of irrepressible podcaster Walt Dangefield, who recalls the polemical commentator Chad Mulligan in John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968). Two hundred pages in, Dangerfield's monologue concludes thus:
"Man, I wanted to be an astronaut. That's my excuse for getting fat, was disappointment that I couldn't be an astronaut. The future let me down, so I crawled into the VR rig and pretended I was the Lothario of the spaceways! The future let me down, so I can't get a job! The future let me down by becoming the present! How dare that fucking future. How dare it . . . " (p. 201)
Buyout's future does let some of its key characters down, but thanks to Irvine's ample skill, we never fail to believe in it. Which renders the question of our disappointment with it a moot one—we believe his future enough to realize that, even as it becomes the present, we have the ability to prevent it, and that's what matters.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro grew up in Europe, mostly, and despite the advice of his betters he was crazy enough to earn a BS in Theoretical Physics and study creative writing. His fiction has appeared in Atomjack Magazine, Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine, and Farrago's Wainscot. Alvaro's reviews of speculative fiction and poetry appear regularly at The Fix, and critical reviews and essays have also appeared in Fruitless Recursion and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. Visit him at his blog, Waiting for My Aineko.