Government by Max Barry
Doubleday HCVR: ISBN0385507593 PubDate: Jan 2003
Review by Alex Lightman
336 pages List price 19.95
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In Jennifer Government, US corporations rule most of the world and people’s last names reflect their current or recent former employers – it’s a branded world.
Companies like Nike increase their street credibility by getting employees to kill people trying to buy products whose supply is limited to provoke near riots to buy things, such as $2,000 pairs of Nike Mercuries. Companies can assign murder to employees, who can outsource hits to the local police, though the cops are likely to subcontract the job to the National Rifle Association, which has used its high membership fees to acquire a military comparable to national governments.
JG is the newest book in the subgenre of science fiction that could be called, “Corporate Futurism” or, more in tune with the times, “Corps Gone Wild!” Because there are no new technologies, no time travel, no space travel, no aliens, many readers of SFRevu might argue that JG isn’t really science fiction. The Library of Congress classification is “Capitalism- Fiction.” Because this reviewer has generated the workable definition of science fiction (“Science fiction is a vision of technology that people will pay to enjoy.”) he can definitively say that JG is, indeed science fiction. Author Max Barry, apparently a little nervous about SF cred, makes sure that readers are aware that he sees JG as SF by putting, “It’s Catch-22 by way of The Matrix” as the sole dust jacket quote. More to the point, John Nike, nemesis of protagonist JG, reads only one book. “John Nike was reading a novel called The Space Merchants; it had been reissued and he’d seen a review in Fast Company…All these old science-fiction (sic) books were the same; they thought future would be dominated by some hard-ass, oppressive Government…In The Space Merchants, the world was dominated by two advertising companies, which was closer to the truth. But still, there were so many laws the companies had to follow! If these guys had all the money, John wondered, who could stop them doing whatever they wanted?” Barry’s “what if” asks, “What if corporate execs could do whatever they wanted?” He has a character quote F. A. Hayek, “From the single-minded idealist to the fanatic is but a single step…There is only one step from fanaticism to barbarism.” (pg. 48). The answer is 300 pages of corporate execs doing entertainingly awful things – because they can, up to a point.
In JG, the corporate executives are bastards, but, given Barry’s logic, they hire killers to whack children, hack the London Stock Exchange, use the National Rifle Association to assassinate the US President via missile attacks on Air Force One, and bring out heavy artillery to destroy Burger King. The astonishing thing about Barry’s book is that, with just two exceptions, he uses (and trashes) only established lawyer-defended brand names, especially Nike, Mitsui, ExxonMobil, and the NRA. The exceptions are US Alliance (based in Los Angeles) and Team Advantage (based in New York), which are the frequent flier mile clubs taken to the extent that they become comparable to the two ad agencies in The Space Merchants and dominate the world like superpowers in a new Corporate Cold War.
Jennifer Government, she of the barcode tattoo under her left eye from her days as product manager at Mattel, is one of the few good corporate execs, motivated by ethics and to save her daughter rather than money. The characters in JG are well-drawn and believable, even if their actions go beyond all plausibility but that of Science Fiction. Barry, though proudly Australian, has a sense of irony and dry wit as fine as any British writer. To wit, a scene when JG confronts John Nike: “He turned and fled. She took off after him. Max Synergy and the US Alliance suits just stood there. This, she discovered, was a common thread to the next four and half minutes: office workers standing around gaping while she and John zipped past them. John was screaming for the NRA or security or anyone with a gun, please, but there was not a lot of action from the suits and skirts at US Alliance. 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.” (pg. 284-5)
Barry’s novel, like most of Isaac Asmov’s novels, is 90% dialogue, most of it amusing and compelling. In short, I’d highly recommend this book. Max Barry and Doubleday need all the help they can get because this book seems designed to get them sued. In the end, like Gore Vidal’s Myron, which substituted Supreme Court justices for body parts (Rehnquist for penis, Powell for balls, Blackmum for asshole – I still remember 20 years later the descriptions were so shocking) Max Barry creates the sort of bad brand image associations that Naomi Klein and other anti-logo crusades were praying for. I will never look at a Nike logo again without seeing a body hanging from it. And that’s the power of JG.