Lunar New Year Book #40: Jennifer Government, by Max Barry

The reason I ordered this book at all was because of its connection to the online game NationStates, which I suppose says something about the effectiveness of Max Barry‘s marketing scheme — create an online game to promote your book, and people will hear about your book. It’s not that the book premise wasn’t an immediate hook when I encountered it: it was. It’s just that, after all, there are just so many books out there that, unless you have a really strong reason to notice one, it’s easy not to. (He’s got another promotion for his upcoming book running at Tales of Corporate Oppression, too, it seems, though I think a shooter game with the ability to import your boss’s face into it would be more likely to be successful.)

Now, there are several things which this book is not. It is not an anticapitalist screed. It is not an anticorporate screed. It is not some kind of accusation that all companies and all business is bad. But it is the kind of book that would be appreciated by, say, people who found No Logo worth reading. It’s a satire of our own hypercoporatizing, hyperconsumptive society.

Jennifer Government cover imageIn Jennifer Government, people don’t have family names: they have surnames taken from their employer. Hack Nike and John Nike both work for Nike. Buy Mitsui is an employee of Mitsui. Hayley McDonald’s, the victim of a murderous Nike show promotion, attends a McDonald’s school, and Kate Mattel attends a competing Mattel school. And the title character, Jennifer Government, is one of the very few souls in this world of Barry’s who works for the Government. America is not one nation, but an amalgamation of nations that have adopted the conglomerating, free-market, USA system; Australia is part of the United States, as are Britain, New Zealand, India, South and Central America, South Africa, and a lot of Southeast Asia (most of the latter offstage). France, however, is not. France has taxes, and social programs. Aw, heck, see this map (and click on it in your browser to see it full-sized).

Working for Government is pathetic when all taxes have been made illegal. Barry paints a world where the rhetoric of free-market capitalism as it is practiced today by many of its adherents is carried to its dangerous, logical conclusion: the total abolishment of government, the total takeover of businesses, and a final hostile takeover attempt made upon the developed world by two competing conglomerates — US Alliance versus Team America. What can Jennifer Government do? Nothing, without some funding from the victims: government budgets for crime prevention, but not for the prosecution of people who’ve already committed crimes.

Jennifer Government, according to Max Barry, isn’t science-fiction futuristic. During an interview at SuicideGirls, when asked about the choice to set the tale in the future, he responded:

I’ll let you in on a secret. It is set in the present. It’s set now in a world where the government has been privatized. When I came up with the idea for the book I also came up with the Nike marketing campaign and this ultra capitalist world but I didn’t want to set it way in the future where I would have to deal with technology like flying cars and laser guns. That wasn’t the sort of book I wanted to write. It occurred to me in a flash that I could set it in the present. When it came time to market and publicize the book the publisher called it a “near future story.? Because near future is a shorthand word for saying the world is just a bit different but its not that way at all. The time isn’t mentioned at all because I didn’t want it to be questioned. There is one reference in the book that you’ll find if you are only looking for it.

Well, I missed the reference, but I think the bigger point was pretty clear: corporations are now engaged in a fight over our whole world and what kinds of power they will be able to claim for themselves within it; we need to think carefully about all of this.

But I have to say that I think a book like this doesn’t really change minds. I don’t know if a book like No Logo would, but I think it stands at least a better chance than Jennifer Government. Jennifer Government isn’t about changing minds, it’s about entertaining those who already “get it” about corporations and corporate power and about how our society in the “West” is more than anything deeply consumerist — more than it’s Judeo-Christian, more than it’s technophilic, more than it’s rooted in the Enlightenment, Western society is a consumerist apparatus. Jennifer Government is funny, it’s extremely funny in places and I wasn’t as disappointed as some people seem to have been about the ending; but it’s made me think hard. I don’t think satire can change minds. I don’t think it ever could. It can mock — and perhaps embarrass into decency — its targets, and it can bolster a kind of sense of team spirit and a sense of humor in those who are engaged with these issues critically, or as activists, but I no longer truly believe that satire can do actual “work” in our world.

I’m not saying Barry thought it could, or thinks it can, or claimed that this novel is supposed to do that; I’m just saying my doubts have reached a kind of breaking point now, and I think they’ve given way to disbelief that satire, or fiction in general, is an agent for change in how people think. Or at least, I think that if a book’s apparent target is satirical treatment of the corporatization of the world, it’s going to be consumed by people who already have an opinion about that. It’s different if a book is performatively subversive — if a book sneaks out and shocks you by an unexpected turn or criticism — but I don’t believe that the topic of a book itself can any longer be subversive in and of itself. Rather, it seems to me just another flavour offered up for consumption.

But anyway, as far as it goes, Jennifer Government is a very good bit of entertainment for anyone who is concerned about the power of corporations and the endpoints of the rhetoric of the free marketeers of our time. There are bits that are laugh-out-loud, and a good many more that bring on the knowing nod and smirk.

Bonus: listen to Barry in interview, and listen to the man read from the book. Link to be found here, in a post on Barry’s own site dedicated to the book.

4 thoughts on “Lunar New Year Book #40: Jennifer Government, by Max Barry

  1. Question: is one of the requirements of sci-fi that it be set in the future? Can’t it still be science fiction and portray an alternate present (as “Jennifer Government” apparently does)? I looked up science fiction at dictionary.com (yeah, I’m lame), and it says: “A literary or cinematic genre in which fantasy, typically based on speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets, forms part of the plot or background.” It doesn’t mention anything about time. It also doesn’t really give a solid definition of science fiction, in my mind, but there you have it.

    Not really important, but I just started wondering about that when I read your review.

  2. My bad, Charles. I ought to have said, “isn’t futuristic SF”.

    SF actually isn’t limited to the future. A major trend in American SF is to set it in the present — Gibson, Sterling, and others are doing that these days, though I think Neal Stephenson was a big trendsetter with his Cryptonomicon. Alternate history is also SF, and I’ve read alternate histories set as far back in history as the Stone Age, or in Ancient Greece. Alternate histories set in the present are fascinating, my favorite being Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

    In addition, with the advent of steampunk, there’s all kinds of neat stuff happening in SF set in the past. Here I’d say Sterling and Gibson were the trailblazers with The Difference Engine, a book that’s in my short-term to-read pile — I had a hardback in Canada which I meant to read ages ago but never got around to. And Paul di Filippo’s The Steampunk Trilogy is also in my short-term to-read pile. The one story of three that I’ve read from that book was full of wonderful, hilarious Victorian SF, full not only of alternate history but also all kinds of whacked-out alternate science.

    Anyway, no, SF is much more open-ended than I may have implied. I’d going to fix that mistaken implication right now.

  3. Ah, OK. With the exception of some of P.K. Dick’s stuff that I read at university, I have to admit that I’m not really familiar with SF in the medium of fiction (although I’ve seen plenty of “science fiction” films). It just kind of hit me when I was reading your post: Wait, do I even know what science fiction is?

    I think that the next time I get out to a bookstore I’m going to look up some of those titles you mentioned. Anything else I might want to delve into?

  4. “…do I even know what science fiction is?”

    Don’t go there, man. Within the genre, there’s a CONTINUOUS discussion with no headway. Suffice it to say one knows it when one sees it, if one knows it well at all.

    I’ll think up a recommendation this week for you. Gotta go now.

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