Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Comments on Jennifer Government by Max Barry

What does your dystopia look like? The two most famous are probably those of Orwell (“Nineteen Eighty Four”) and Huxley (“Brave New World”). Max Barry offers another dystopic vision in “Jennifer Government”.

Here, it is the corporations who are all but sovereign – their relationship with government an uneasy balance of power, government being no more than another consumer choice. The police provide a service that can be paid for, as for that matter do the National Rifle Association. People bear their employer's name as a surname – John Nike joins the roll of great villains, a ruthless man who seeks to transcend even his own corporation. Jennifer Government is the “straight cop”, trying to prevent the corporations getting out of hand, but even her daughter has the surname “Mattel”, as she is in a school sponsored by the toy manufacturer. (Preferable, she feels, to the Macdonalds school....).

The heart of the story is a fictional promotion of urban footwear, in which some rogue Nike employees decide that nothing will make a particular range of trainers more desirable than assassinating a few of the people who own them. Hack, a much lower-level employee within Nike, finds himself the person tasked with carrying out this contract – but in a fit of conscience, he goes to the police, which leads to them offering to carry out the contract on his behalf. So far, so good – Nike, or more specifically, John Nike, goes from strength to strength, whilst Jennifer Government seeks to identify and make accountable the person who did this, as she tries to balance the needs of her patient, lonely daughter.

The book is an enjoyable read, though the number of characters is perhaps a little unwieldy. It reminded me of early Ben Elton (“Gridlock”, “Stark”) without the diatribes. I can't really disagree with those reviewers who suggest that it was written with a TV or film version in mind, though given the control of those media by corporations, one wonders how likely it is that this would ever be made! Also, sympathetic characters are somewhat light on the ground. This doesn't take away from a page-turning story, though, and if you are looking for a lightish read that fits ideologically with the reaction against consumerism, following a couple of months of reading Al Gore or Gore Vidal, this could be the book for you.

Max Barry's website is here, and here's a link to the Nationstates website, a semi-humorous country-management game which was where I first heard about Jennifer Government.