Infinity Hold – Barry B Longyear (1989)
The premise is that sometime in the near future when Humanity has reached the stars, the solution to overcrowded prisons should be to take all the prisoners and dump them on an inhospitable world.
Longyear’s aim, presumably, was to examine how the prisoners might react, survive, organise etc. once the ship had abandoned them on the planet Tartarus.
The novel is narrated by petty criminal Bando Nicos, an intelligent but misguided man who is forced to reassess his past and the choices he made in life once he is on the planet.
There he is forced by circumstance to help organise the prisoners and build a workable society.
The newly deposited prisoners are not the first to be transported there however and previous transportees have already formed themselves into large gangs, which is another obstacle that the new arrivals have to face.
However, a young man, Garoit, puts forward the notion that the prisoners should decide for themselves democratically how things should be run. As the group, heading across a desert to try and find a place to settle (knowing that they will need to face other gangs en route) face various crises, laws and rules of behaviour begin to evolve. Bando finds himself commissioned as the gang’s policeman and initiates several laws himself. Laws are recorded by his second in command and as they progress they are written out and passed around.
It’s an interesting concept and the novel is a decent read. Longyear creates prison jargon that one gets the hang of quite quickly and sketches out the backstories of some of the more colourful ‘sharks’ or prisoners.
It falls down on two counts. The first is that Longyear underestimates the tendency of large uncontrolled groups to behave recklessly. We are expected to believe that several thousand people, many of them dangerously violent, male and female, previously segregated, are dumped on a hostile world with little food, and that they (for the most part) decide to behave in a civilised way and follow their elected leaders to the promised land.
There’s no incidents of rape until two thirds of the way into the novel. One would suggest that men who had been confined for years on end suddenly finding themselves in the presence of thousands of women – and with no police or prison officers on the scene – would be a recipe for chaos and carnage. As it turns out in the case of the one rape that is reported the victim is a male prisoner, and to be fair the situation is handled well, without being sensationalised.
The second failing is the setting. The planet has a 27 hour day, deserts and some fertile areas. The plants are edible. the atmosphere and gravity is Earth normal. the alien environment obviously does not concern Longyear, but had he made more of the challenges faced by an alien world combined with the mindsets of several thousand hardened criminals suddenly released into a sort of freedom, then this would be a much better novel. Longyear. one suspects, feels that this idea can only be fully realised within the context of SF. In that I believe he is correct. There aren’t any large islands or inaccessible valleys on or in which to drop a large number of unwanted people. necessarily then, it would need to be another world.
Logistically, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Would any government go to the expense of regularly carting thousands of prisoners across the galaxy, just to drop them off on a remote planet?
However, it’s an interesting morality tale, with themes of institutional corruption, redemption, the nature of law and even love.