Jennifer Government, by Max Barry

Editor's note: This is one future dystopia that has really stood the test of time. I am still recommending it to people. In fact, I need to get a copy from the library and read it again myself.

I am finally getting around to reviewing Jennifer Government, and what excellent timing, coming on the heels of the latest atrocity wrought by the US use of privatized paramilitaries (also known as mercenaries). It is the complete privatization of all "services" that could possibly be performed by the government that drives the plot of this small, frantically-paced, quirky SF novel, set in the usual near-future dystopia. But as near-future dystopias go, this one is the most believable yet, and the real likely result of current neo-con trends. Jennifer works for the government, true, just as Buy Mitsui works for Mitsui and Hack Nike works for Nike and Billy NRA - well, one of them does work for the NRA and the other one is pretending to, hence the confusion. But even though Jennifer's job with the government is tracking down and apprehending criminals (not that there's much one can do anymore that is criminal) she can only go to work if she gets funding, and that may have to come from the grief-stricken parents of a murder victim. Funding once acquired, she goes to work to uncover a brilliant new marketing strategy at Nike - mass murders of youths who have just purchased their $2,500 trainers (to raise the street cred, you see.) Jennifer thinks the style of this sounds familiar - sounds like her ex-husband, as a matter of fact. And so it is! John Nike, he is known as now. But it turns out that the killing was assigned to a soft little pleb named Hack Nike who contracted it out to The Police (TM) (who, in one of the novel's many comic touches, play "Every Breath You Take" constantly at their headquarters, because it's their corporate anthem.) They in turn contract it out to the NRA, who are essentially the best funded and most profitable of all the private armies on the planet.
I have a mixed reaction to this book. The premise is spot-on, and some of the wise-ass comedy is absolutely brilliant. On the down-side, and this is not necessary in a black-comic SF novel but it is often the case, the characters are very cartoon-y. I think Barry is trying to humanize Jennifer by giving her a child (the reason she is no longer married to evil John) and the usual single-parent struggle, and a beginnings of a love-life, but all it does is detract from her integrity as a character (rather than as a person) because he is not quite a good enough writer to pull that off. It might have been better to centre her character around devotion to the job and make her lonely and introspective. Also, I am not a big fan of slapstick, even in visual forms, and I find most attempts to write slapstick vaguely irritating. (The one exception being Thomas Pynchon, which is why I admire him so much.) But in all, the good outweighs the bad, and I would give this book an 8.5 out of 10 as SF and a 5 out of 10 as "Literature".

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