Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Penal Colony / by Richard Herley

Only the most violent criminals are brought to the island penal colony of Sert, an alternative incarceration unit intended to help alleviate the overcrowded prison system. Though gunships patrol the waters around the perimeter, there are no wardens, no guards and no rules on the island itself. Martial law is the only authority with "inmates" monitored remotely through specialized satellite detection devices. All prisoners brought to the island are sentenced to life without parole, just like Anthony Routledge whose been convicted of raping and murdering a woman in cold blood. Routledge is literally dropped (from a helicopter) onto the island where, with absolutely no warning, he's introduced to the sheer ferocity of his situation. Reduced to a virile state of savagery by their conditions, bloodthirsty island inhabitants prey on him relentlessly, swiftly hunting down Routledge who only escapes their vicious attacks after killing three pursuers in self-defense.
Not all prisoners on the island are that depraved though. A sect known as The Community, comprised of individuals not totally given over to madness or blood lust, have set themselves apart from the primeval part of the island, effectively quarantined within a walled off portion separate from their barbarian counterparts whom they vigilantly ensure never gain access. Routledge, having survived the assault on his life, is permitted to become a part of The Community, finding it to be a thriving work camp where men freely cultivate their own natural habitat, living off the land, growing their own food and domesticating wild animals. Though things seem peaceable enough with some men even claiming to have found a permanent home, there's some subversive maneuvers afoot. In top secret fashion, an escape plan has been slowly fostered by the camp elders who, deeming Routledge a worthy man for the job, have drafted him as a candidate to help pull it off.
Surprisingly few books have approached the idea of prison dynamics with the same ingenuity as Herley in this admirably creative novel which fuses an exciting premise with sophisticated writing and honest characters. It's a sort of Lord of the Flies meets Robinson Crusoe meets Count of Monte Cristo meets Papillon (and a host of others); and yet it carries off its own identity perfectly, promoting a well-cooked idea combined with grounded thematic concepts in a story which bristles with allegory and symbolism. Man vs. nature, instinct vs. reason, captivity vs. freedom, crime & punishment, oppression & redemption, etc. are all played out in the context. The book is worthy entertainment simply as a adventure/survival tale though and should disappoint absolutely no one.

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