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Chain-Gang All-Stars

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Chain-Gang All-Stars is a sci-fi take on a near future world of incarceration. Any attempt to rehabilitate offenders has long gone – incarceration is about making profit from those with the misfortune to be in the criminal justice system.


The headline scenario is a modern day take on Roman gladiators. Prisoners with a death sentence or a long prison sentence can opt to take part in the program. Survive for three years and you are free, but face monthly battles to the death and the constant threat between bouts from your fellow chain gang members. Only one “Link” has ever made it through the three year shift. 


Meanwhile, we get an insight into the futuristic prisons that are so bad that they make the gladiatorial life seem preferable. Interminable solitary confinement in darkness; silence enforced by implants that release electric shocks at the slightest sound; slave labour; and punishment at the whim of the guards using the Influencer - a super-taser that creates the greatest imaginable pain. 


Most of the story focuses on Loretta Thurwar and thee Hurricane Staxxx (Hamara Stacker), two black women participating in the gladiator program. They represent the fact that black people are over-represented in the current US criminal justice system. They are also lovers. Their nemeses are a pair of men, Simon J Craft, a man with mental health challenges, and Hendrix Young, a black man who self-harmed to escape a torturous regime at an experimental prison. The four characters have quite distinct voices and personalities. Unlike many prison-based novels, there is no attempt to make the lead characters innocent. They are guilty (albeit with some mitigating factors), but they are nevertheless portrayed as people rather than crimes. They have feelings. The have names. 


The story itself is as gripping as it is grotesque. Needless to say, there are no happy endings, but the tone often has a lightness that balances the darkness of the themes. And the themes are front and centre. At times, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah breaks the fourth wall by offering footnotes setting out the most shameful statistics and history of the current US penal system. These footnotes remind the reader that although the scenarios are futuristic, the characters represent the current reality – both within the criminal justice system, and also within the world of media and the small group of penal reformers. It is one big allegory. 


The writing offers multiple narrators and multiple points of view in handily bite sized chapters. This maintains interest and succeeds in building a complex world for the story. It allows the reader multiple ways into the story as well as allowing multiple contemporary issues to be represented. 


In his end notes, Adjei-Brenyah cites various academic and journalistic references. I suspect there is also an unacknowledged debt to other works of fiction, including the films Spartacus and Running Man – perhaps even elements of Tron. Chain-Gang All-Stars is original, but some of the ideas in it may feel familiar.   


This is a really classy piece of writing – quite unexpected for a novel whose premise sounded pretty salacious and whose opening pages lived up to that salacious promise. Chain-Gang All-Stars is Colossal. 



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