photo of Nana Kwame AdjeiBrenyah hands in the air and words jumbled
Illustration: WIRED Staff; Getty Images

The Genre Novel Has a New Maestro

Speculative fiction author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is a builder of worlds dark and twistedly terrifying, but never devoid of hope. 

When I reach author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah on the first Monday in May, on the eve of his debut novel’s publication, he explains, in so many words, that being a lifelong New York Knicks fan has taught him what it means to have absolute faith in a losing enterprise. A canny conductor of the macabre, Adjei-Brenyah writes profoundly about dystopia. And because he is a builder of worlds dark and twistedly terrifying, I am curious if he sees his work as hopeful—or is the future really that bleak? “Even just me being a Knicks fan means I’m a hopeful person,” he says. I don’t disagree.

In his 2018 story collection Friday Black, Adjei-Brenyah didn’t purely write about imminent dystopias, he anchored them with moral stakes. “Zimmer Land” was about an amusement park where gun-happy white patrons shoot Black people for fun, while “Lark Street” dealt with the fantastical aftermath of abortion. His themes cartwheel with intensity, from the venom of consumerism to the unbelievably bizarre ways racism shows up in speculative realms. The stories are sweeping, acrobatic, and brim with danger. They’re also stuffed fat with humor. What his stories are, at their most fundamentally satisfying, is exceedingly honest about the human condition. 

His latest, the novel Chain-Gang All-Stars, is an extension of everything Adjei-Brenyah does persuasively: juggle love with death, satire with pain, the impossible with the possible. The story revolves around two inmates/lovers—Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker—who are part of ​​Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE), a supermax corporation that broadcasts a survive-or-die, gladiator-style prison tournament called BattleGround. It’s sponcon for the carceral state, the most depraved form of influencerdom we may soon encounter, where inmates are recycled into reality TV stars. In the book, convicts who remain alive are granted freedom, and Thurwar is next in line. Across ballad-like chapters, which move with the speed and emotional care of anime fight scenes, Adjei-Brenyah weaves a sprawling sci-fi world of blood and profit, but one not entirely scrubbed of hope. In doing so, he doesn’t reinvent the genre novel so much as make it his own. The new maestro of dystopian lit has arrived.

WIRED: Chain-Gang All-Stars is set in a future where televised prison battles are primetime viewing. Is the book, and the tomorrow it imagines, a cautionary tale or a prediction of where you think we are headed? 

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: I see it as both those things, but also a highlight of where we already are right now. The spirit that enables Chain-Gang All-Stars is our current attitude toward those who have been convicted of crimes, especially violent crimes. So in a lot of ways, I think of it as a calling out of what is here today.

Is a world without prisons possible?

It is. Well, I know it is because that’s happened before. Prisons are made. We create these systems. Sometimes we think they sprouted from the ground for us. We create [prisons] when we could create other things that make them obsolete, which they really are. Believing that a world without incarceration is possible is really important to the imagining of it. Having the capacity to imagine a world without prisons is really important to the movement work of actually getting that done. So yeah, I do believe it. For me, it’s not like a scrimmage. It’s not a theoretical exercise. The idea of abolition is 100 percent real. And I believe it is not only possible, but our better destiny.

I like that phrasing—our better destiny. Unpack that for me.

We have these big social ills that we acknowledge, at least on some level. Prison, as it currently exists, totally stops our ability to respond meaningfully or with compassion to incarcerated individuals specifically. Many people who are incarcerated suffer from addiction, mental health crises, or poverty.

Prison allows us the capacity and the infrastructure to criminalize people. It allows us to throw them away without really thinking about the underlying issues that are systemic, which cause people to be in that position, and often because they never had access to proper resources. And so there’s a stigma. 

To me, that better destiny I’m talking about is a society that lovingly and compassionately acknowledges those realities as systemic issues, not individual problems. It allows us to, as a community, grow a response to those things.

You often write about darkly surrealist experiences that don’t seem that far away—do any of the recent advancements in AI bring you pause? Or perhaps excite you?

If I open my phone right now, you’ll see a clip I was just watching. [Adjei-Brenyah turns his iPhone toward the Zoom screen and plays the video.] Basically, he’s talking about how Adobe’s about to announce Premiere Pro Firefly, which is AI-driven editing. I don’t know if you’ve ever done any video editing, but it can be super tedious and hard. So it gives me a lot of pause, but I also know that we’re ready. People are afraid of AI because we don't have a human-first attitude toward things, we have a profit-first attitude. So it’s like, Maybe AI will push us toward an inhumane and callous way of being. My attitude is, we’ve been there. 


It’s actually funny. An earlier draft of this book had a big section—and it exists a little bit—where certain people’s jobs were human-essential and some people’s jobs were not. That lack of human essentiality was a big part of what, in the background, drove the desire for something like Chain-Gang All-Stars, actually. 

We’re going to have a big reckoning when a lot of jobs are relegated obsolete. So I’m scared about a lot of it. I don’t feel particularly excited by it. Technological advancement without ethical growth is really dangerous. And we’ve seen that many, many times in human history.

How would you describe your relationship to technology?

It can be beautiful. Technology is just tools for moving through the world. But if your primary driver for moving through the world is to get profit—you’re fucked. Meaning, we’re all in a bad position. 

If your paradigm for moving through the world meaningfully is to allow humans to thrive, to allow spaces for communities to grow, for people to feel love and feel fully self-actualized, then technology is awesome. 

I feel great about this standing desk. When my back starts to hurt I can adjust it, and that’s great. There’s a lot of beauty in the creativity that is responsible for these new things we have that allow us to move through the world with not only more ease, but more precision and more depth. But so much of our technological growth, in my view, is considering some kind of potential profit. And that always feels dangerous.

On the concept of profit, and being exploited for it: Two very different kinds of women are the focal point of your novel. Why were they the ideal means to tell this story?

On some level, [Loretta] Thurwar kind of chose herself when I had the first idea of the story. It started as a short story. There was this woman at the eye of the arena, and she was talking very passionately about this system she had been a part of. I got interested in her because she seemed like she had a lot of depth. I felt like I needed more time with her.

She chose you.

In terms of the novel and thinking why it had to be a woman, there’s a lot of reasons. One, there’s just a particular way in which a woman can be both loved and despised, sexualized but also stepped on, raised up and disrespected all at once. Both Serena Williams and LeBron James have a very particular existence in our world. But Serena has a perspective that I think even LeBron doesn’t understand. Serena, in her own sport, is often and commonly disrespected by, like, the actual institution of tennis—not the fans, the actual sport itself. There is a weird negotiation she always has to go through, this back and forth, because she’s a woman, because of her body. ​​It’s an issue in a way that I don't think a male athlete really ever has to consider.


But more realistically, I think men are much more easily seduced by the allure of the capitalist buy-in. It’s Play the game and you’ll get rich, as opposed to No one’s winning in this, no matter what. For the book, I just felt like a woman would be the person who would actually try to do something different when she didn't have to, because she was also occupying a position of power. It felt less likely for a man to be occupying a position of power and also try to upset that same system that enabled him.

Is it more natural for men to not want to disrupt their power?

I don’t think it’s natural. The privilege of being a man in the way that people cosign your behaviors, and particularly violence, the way violence is baked into manhood—that’s harder for men to pull back from. Some forms of masculinity are a trap. The privilege of being a man comes with certain realities that make it hard for them to be in that position and also be willing to upset it. In my mind, it’s not impossible, but it seems less likely. 

In America, would you say we are addicted to violence?

Oh, for sure. We’ve been addicted. Violence is America’s first language. Think about it. When you take a history class in school, all you learn is the different violences and how they’re responsible for everything. Whether it’s the Revolutionary War or slavery, it’s just different types of violences. 


We’re bookended by it. Our borders are defined by violent institutions. By that I mean, on the internal side we have a very extremely robust industrial prison complex, which imprisons more people per capita than any other nation in the world. And on the external side, we have the largest military in the world. I don’t think it’s even radical to say those are both violent institutions. I can’t imagine them not being. And they are some of our biggest institutions, but also in the context of the entire planet. 

Exactly. I think of the way we’re fed entertainment, and sometimes how the most popular TV shows or video games are often the most violent, which isn’t a critique, because I consume a lot of them, it’s just what it is.

We really believe that violence and meaning are intertwined. 

Is violence devoid of meaning?

I don’t think violence is devoid of meaning, but there is just as much meaning in compassion. Compassion is much more meaningful. Any animal can be violent, you know. It takes an evolved consciousness to extend compassion to the person that has extended violence. Like anything else, violence has become a drug that we’re addicted to. If we invested in communities the way we invest in death institutions, we could be in such a different place. 

Some of the most visceral scenes in the book are fight scenes. They read like anime, almost as if you’re watching it. Was that on purpose?

It’s not on purpose, but it’s a natural thing for me. I’m a big manga anime person. I’m OG. I used to read Bleach. I was the type of person who looked down on the people who watched it, even though now I watch way more than I ever read. The way I think about physical conflict being depicted is very informed by anime, but more importantly it’s not just about the violence. There’s a big difference between a John Wick and a Naruto fight. Something bad happens to him, it’s OK for him to kill however many people, it doesn’t really matter. Whereas the anime I'm interested in, often the protagonist is really, really, really, really, really, really hesitant to kill.

The difference is light-years apart.

I think the funniest example is Goku still chatting with Frieza after he’s blown up multiple planets. Goku's like, you did bad. I'm trying my best to not have to kill youyou know? He eventually gets pushed to it, but that feels moral to me. That's my attitude. Like being really, really, really willing to extend grace to whoever. We have all these ideas that suggest that just harming people who do harm is not useful—and yet! So I hope the fights in the book, besides being exciting, had that interesting moral aspect to them.

Outside of the humor and love, which you weave together beautifully, there’s a sinister backdrop to most of your writing. Would you describe your work as hopeful?

When it’s at its best, it is. Not to say I can’t dive into cynicism sometimes, but it aims to be hopeful. Like with your earlier question, do I think a world without prisons is possible? Yes, I do. And my work thinks it is possible as well. A world without any of the things I talk about is possible, and the harshnesses that shape the stories. And because of that I feel like it’s ultimately hopeful.    

Is it the job of the writer to leave room for hope? 

I can’t speak for other people, but I think it’s my job. I think that’s part of my purpose as a writer and as a human.