Jennifer Government - Max Barry

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive)

Jennifer Government
Max Barry
Abacus Publishers
ISBN: 0349117624 (Amazon link)

I didn't want to like this book for the very simple, and very stupid, reason that it seemed very much to be in the SF tradition, but wasn't marketed as SF. I'm mostly over my ghettoisation as a reader, but it'd please me to see popular, well regarded, fashionable books like this in among the TV spin-offs and sharecrops crowding the SF section of my local bookshops. (What's more curious is why this labelling, or lack of it, annoyed me, as genre arguments - see the never ending threads about it on rec.arts.sf.written - usually bore me to tears. I simply read Stuff I Like and let everyone else worry about what to call it.)

Genre definitions aside, I read this caustic little gem in a single sitting and thought it was terrific. The basic theme is a reductio ad absurdum of the consumerist, corporate driven, free-market US culture - why should corporate competition be always and without exception a healthy thing? The resulting future is familiar from books like Stephenson's Snow Crash, with the branding themes now familiar from books like Klein's No Logo or Gibson's Pattern Recognition. In terms of structure, much of Jennifer Goverment's later plot, involving duelling loyalty schemes, owes a lot to the classic The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth, but just while I was feeling clever for starting to notice that, the author gives the SF reader the nod by having a character read said title mid-way through. Amusingly, this market driven character dismisses The Space Merchants as being set in a ridiculous future where the government is still relevant, something which was very much not the intention!

So, as the blurb says, we have a future run by giant American corporations, where everyone is happy, rich, and tax-free thanks to "capitalizm (sic)". Except Europeans, "where the Government isn't privatized, they still have to pay tax and do whatever the Government says, which would really suck." Hack Nike - your surname reflects your pride in your employer and is a public declaration of brand loyalty - is a lowly merchandising officer, who has a chance encounter with John Nike and John Nike at the marketing floor's water-cooler. Unbelievably, these senior marketeers offer Hack a chance to get into marketing himself - The Chance Of A Lifetime! - if only he'll sign here, here, and here, and don't bother reading the small print. As Hack's girlfriend, the hacker Violet, observes, signing a contract without reading it is dumb, everyone knows that.

(Incidentally, Violet's sub-plot, involving corporate denial-of-service attacks via computer viruses was about the only thing that didn't work for me. Go read the tech headlines on Google and wonder why on earth physical access to competitor's server farms was needed - it's a very clunky ploy hole despite some nicely realistic throwaway detail.)

To his horror, the hapless Hack discovers that he has signed up to a new, brilliant Guerilla Marketing campaign - Nike are going to shoot a few people to drive up demand for their new sneakers. Hack has a few reservations about, uh, executing this plan, and goes to the Police, who immediately offer him an out-sourcing contract, promising to deliver clean kills for a very competitive price point! Within a dozen more pages we meet the other players; Buy Mitsui, a basically decent stock-broker on the edge of burning out, Hayley McDonald's, an air-headed school girl desperate for new sneakers, and Billy Betchel, a newly unemployed and none-too-bright factory labourer, offered a new contract by the NRA. Finally, as the launch of the new product looms, we meet the eponymous Jennifer Government, a cop with old-fashioned ideas about what that means. She's onto the Nike plan, but can't move until they do... Mayhem ensues.

Although the satire is bitingly prominent throughout the book, what Barry is really writing is a cracking comic thriller. Deft character sketches of each player open multiple plot threads, and the author wastes no time in bringing everyone together in a tremendously accomplished fashion. Threads weave in and out of each other, each short segment delivering well-paced advancement of one view of proceedings, rapidly and smoothly escalating into a splendidly farcical chain of events. Combined with the dry, transparent prose style, there's something cinematic about the plot structure, a suggestion of rapid cuts and frantic background music that I really enjoyed.

The comedy always retains a sharp, serious edge due to Jennifer's persistent hunt for the killers of 14 teenagers, but even when the plot takes even more sinister turns involving Jennifer's daughter, the prose remains dryly witty. Some of the asides due to mundane details like school sponsorship are ridiculously hilarious, but what's so compelling about this title is how close we already are to his free-market dystopia, each belly-laugh at something like the Mattel school is tempered with a sobering awareness that, "Hang on, we already have corporate sponsorship in the classroom don't we?" or, "But haven't I read about private health insurance already being an issue for some hospitals' emergency departments?"

Recommended. Here's one line that made me redecorate part of my flat in tea, "Companies claimed to be highly responsive, Jennifer thought, but you only had to chase a screaming man through their offices to realize it wasn't true."

See also: the author's web-site,, which includes a sample chapter, and NationStates, "an online nation simulation game written by Max".

Posted: Wed - March 3, 2004 at 03:15 PM