Earlier this year I gushed about Lexicon, Max Barry’s cracking tale centred around a secret society of adepts harnessing the hidden power of words to twist the desires and actions of others. Thing is, everywhere I heard the name ‘Max Barry’ it was in reference to a previous novel, Jennifer Government. Praise gushed out of every corner of the interwebs, making it sound as though Lexicon was just amateur hour. So finally I got round to reading it and damn, am I glad I did.
Jennifer Government throws us into a grim, capitalist dystopia, a world ruled by advertising and corporations. Conglomerations of corporate entities wage a war of loyalty cards, … squaring off against … to offer the best deals and garner more willing consumers to their stable. Such is the extent of big business’s encroachment into people’s lives that even names bear witness to their power. On accepting a job with a given company your old surname is replaced and you become a walking advert, hence the titular Jennifer.
The stakes are high in this world and morals tend to take a backseat to morals when it comes to turning a profit. So when Nike decide they need a hot new campaign to promote their latest line of sneakers they turn to marketing manager Hank Nike. In a burst of creative glory, Hank decides Nike needs to return to their 80s heyday when people murdered each other for the latest must-have basketball boots. No such thing as bad publicity, right? What could be better than mass shootings on launch day? But lacking the know-how or guts to personally orchestrate the operation, Hank outsources it to the privatised Police. Who then swiftly pass the buck to their competitors, the NRA.
Needless to say the plan does not go smoothly and Jennifer Government is called in to get to the bottom of the mess. She finds herself on the trail of Billy NRA and Buy Mitsui, both unwittingly caught up in the chaos. All trails lead to John Nike at the top of the pyramid and before long the situation has spiraled out of control into full-blown warfare between corporate gangs. In this dystopic theme park the rule of law simply means who has the finances to secure the best firepower.
Jennifer Government is a great example of how to do near-future world-building. The political and cultural landscape is just familiar enough to be realistic. All Max Barry has done is stretch it a little at the edges, a few tweaks here and there playing on our fears of society’s potential failings. He never pulls too hard though, never actually tearing, just exerting enough pressure to create a comically distorted parody of our current dilemma. Even as the action starts really escalating towards the finale you never feel like he’s taking it too far, rather reaching a logical, if hilarious, conclusion.
Barry has a real knack for creating characters too. It helped keep Lexicon grounded despite its fantastical premise and plays the same role here. Everyone in this book is remarkably human, full of flaws, not entirely good yet never entirely evil. Even the novel’s Big Bad, John Nike, is far more substantial than the one-dimensional cartoon villain you’d expect to find occupying the role. He’s a perfect counterpoint to Jennifer’s damaged heroine while the supporting cast – Hank, Buy and Billy – all manage to elicit a great deal of sympathy. They’re not evil, they’re just trying to get by in a world which has screwed with their morality centres since birth.
As a political satire Jennifer Government shares a lot in common with Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland and the YA works of Cory Doctorow. But even if politics aren’t your bag it’s still a cracking read – chases, explosions, subterfuge and plenty dark comedy to go around. And despite being a whole decade old – a lifetime in today’s light-speed culture – it’s still astonishingly relevant. If you liked Lexicon this is a must-read, and if you haven’t encountered Max Barry yet this is a perfect place to start.