Saturday, May 25, 2024

30. Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

I got this from my brother-in-law for Xmas.  I was quite looking forward to it, hoping mainly based on the trade dress that it would be a fun, sci-fi/action ride sort of like a dystopic future Joe Abercrombie.  It's actually much more serious than that and has a very specific political agenda, a critique of the American prison system (and adjacent professional sports as well).  It's preachy at points and too direct for me, but once you accept that the message is the point of the book, it is quite well-done.  The world-building of a too close near future where prisoners can get themselves out of jail (and into another kind of prison) by participating in death games.

The main narrative is two of these convicts, Thurware and Staxxx, who are at the 1 and 2 spot in the sport and are nearing "freedom" status, though so far nobody has ever actually been freed.  They are also lovers and friends in their chain together.  Interwoven throughout their story, are short insights into all the other various people who are involved with these games: the protesters, the board members, the prison bus driver, fans of the games (including a really cringy portrayal of a couple where the mansplainer boyfriend convinces the more sensitive girlfriend to get into the games).  None of it adds up to much in the real world, which is fitting as this is meant to be a realistic extrapolation of our world.  There are asterisks with footnotes discussing real world statistics and issues in our prison system.  These are written first in a factual style and then concluded with polemical sentences.  I found these off-putting.  If the facts don't convince the reader of the utter fuckedupedness of the American prison system, then falling into emotional and poetic language isn't going to either.  Maybe this is a release for the writer and maybe the internet generation now responds to these kind of emotional appeals/self-confirmations.  It's not my jam.

The details of this new reality sport are really well thought-out and they shine a dark light on how these things work in today's sports entertainment world.  The participants are ranked according to how many kills and they earn Blood Points by sponsorships which allow them to buy perks like good food and a better sleeping cot and advantages like watching video of their upcoming opponents and better weapons and armour.  The fan experience is tracked and narratives developed while these flying eyeball things surround the players almost all their lives recording them.  It's frightening.

If you want some serious near sci-fi, socially hard, that explores in an interesting way, how the prison system and professional sports intersect with race and sports, then I would recommend this book.  The characters are interesting and there is some pretty brutal combat, but it's not a super-entertaining ride.  

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