Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Microreview [book]: Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Chain-Gang All-Stars drills into the social critique of the industrial prison system and crime in the U.S. through the battle royal genre in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut novel.

A yellow background with illustrated flames and a scythe. The title is bold and centered.

Content Warning: This novel contains graphic depictions of violence as well as content about rape, suicide, and more. Please reference a service like StoryGraph for a more complete list.

Set in the near future, Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah follows a cast of characters experiencing or viewing the world of “hard action-sports,” a euphemism for gladiatorial matches between people who are incarcerated. While the deathmatch violence of the arena is bad enough, the “Links” are also reality TV show participants as drone cameras follow them on marches between cities (and deathmatches) where new alliances could form or “blackouts” make for easy killings. 

While written in omniscient point of view and often sliding between different characters’ thoughts, the novel centers several people. Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker are two of the top Links. Thurwar is close to “earning” her freedom after three years of fighting, and Staxxx is her lover and an equally strong fighter. Thankfully, they are on the same chain gang, so they can’t fight each other. While they are at the center of the novel, chapters also focus on other members of the chain; viewers like Emily who slowly becomes obsessed with Chain-Gang after her “alpha” husband Will takes her to a live show; and activists fighting to outlaw hard action-sports. 

Even with a large cast of characters, Thurwar shines through as the heart of the novel as well as what keeps the chain together. She only survived her first fight because her opponent allowed her to win. Thurwar continues this act by helping others and using her fame to try to keep those she cares about alive even as she deals with the ramifications of daily violence on her own mind and body. With only a few matches to go before her freedom, she not only wants to survive but make sure those she loves, like Staxxx, have a chance to survive afterward. Unfortunately, her last match will take place in a new season, and with new seasons come rule changes.

While the novel is set in future, it feels uncannily prescient. In this near future, viewing culture in the U.S. has advanced beyond Ray Bradbury’s television walls to screens on every surface, even inside the refrigerator. Immersive viewing brings the violence of hard action-sports literally into the viewer’s living room, but rather than make the “sport” controversial, it only grows in popularity over the seasons—the ultimate reality TV show.

With the return of The Hunger Games to popularity, it’s hard not to compare this book, but Adjei-Brenyah has a more pointed twist. For example, the reality-show announcer, Micky Wright, feels like a truer version of Caesar Flickerman. Thanks to the omniscient point of view of the novel, the reader glimpses his thoughts and feelings. His internal monologue demonstrates how his job’s reliance on systemic racism, dehumanization, and capitalism shapes a person’s thoughts and actions. Micky recognizes the power he holds over the people forced to kill each other, and he revels in that power, touching, prodding, insulting, the Links. He’s not played for laughs—he’s sinister. 

What separates this novel from other battle royal novels is the social critique. While this subgenre often criticizes aspects of society through the violence, Adjei-Brenyah goes a step further through the use of footnotes. The novel isn’t as far removed from reality as Battle Royal by Koushun Takami for instance, and the uncanny use of reality TV brings to mind shows like the controversial Jailbirds. Because of the near future aspect, Adjei-Brenyah can utilize footnotes throughout—some real facts and some focused on the science-fictional worldbuilding. These footnotes introduce crime and incarceration statistics easily verifiable online but just as shocking when paired with the novel’s violent intensity. Other footnotes provide backstory to people otherwise voiceless in the story. Still others explain the technology used to control people, such as a reimagining of the Auburn System, an actual system of punishment in the 1800s that did not allow incarcerated people to speak, but recreated through technology surgically inserted beneath the skin to administer a shock. Through the footnotes, the reader cannot fully engage in the “entertaining” aspects of the story without also acknowledging the dehumanization of mass incarceration in the U.S.

Yet, the novel does not read like a polemic. Much like Emily, the viewer slowly becoming obsessed with hard action-sports, the novel is so engaging it’s difficult to put down. Each character has such a unique voice, that Adjei-Brenyah’s ability at the prose level shines without distraction. The moments of violence are intense and horrific, but they are balanced with moments of care and love for each other, especially as Thurwar does more than try to survive but to make things better for those she will leave behind. Even so, one of the brilliant aspects of this book is the reader can never get comfortable, partially due to the footnotes. Adjei-Brenyah never lets the reader forget that much of the violence described in this near future has already happened or is currently happening.

This book is ideal for people looking for more commentary in a post-Hunger Games world. Overall, Chain-Gang All-Stars is an amazing debut that balances story with social critique.

Posted by: Phoebe Wagner is an author, editor, and academic writing and living at the intersection of speculative fiction and climate change.