Review: Jennifer Government

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’ve never read a dystopia quite like this one.

“1984” set the tone for the dystopian future; the government that controls everything and everyone. It’s a future we fear constantly in an age of mass surveillance and secret NSA projects and black ops teams. The totalitarian nightmare.

“Jennifer Government” is a very different type of dystopia. Corporations are all-powerful and people take the last names of the companies they work for. Everything can be bought and those with the most money (corporations) have the most power. It’s a very different vision of the future and it makes for a fascinating setting.

The story itself is about a government agent (the titular “Jennifer Government”) who is hunting an executive responsible for killing fourteen people as part of a marketing promotion. That’s the simplified version; along the way, there’s a weave of different characters crossing paths and double crossing each other. The NRA is a private military organization. It’s nuts. And it’s awesome.

Barry’s writing style is taut and quick, in the “short chapter” tradition that keeps the pages turning at a lightning pace. It makes for the “can’t-put-it-down” experience.

With such glowing praise, why only four stars out of five? After I finished the book, I realized how much I still wanted to know about it. How did history develop in such a way that the government became a powerless bureaucracy and the culture evolved that people named themselves for their employers? The novel’s relentless pace became a problem; things I wanted to stop and explore I instead blazed past on chase scenes and escapes.

There isn’t time to wonder about the hows and the whys as the bullets are flying and the stakes are raised. The dialogue itself tends to be action movie-esque, a vehicle to keep things moving. But there are so many fascinating questions; how did we get here, why is the world like this, and no one seemed willing to ask them. A lost opportunity, if ever there was one.

In the end, I came away feeling as though I’d gulped down a very tasty meal, but so quickly that I didn’t really get a chance to taste it.

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In Which I Agree With Jeff Flake About Something

So the government shut down today. Fortunately for yours truly, I’m employed by a level of government that has so far managed to remain functional, so I get to keep coming into work every day. I am very relieved by this fact, although I admit that the idea of not having to work did sound pretty good this morning when my alarm started chiming away.

I wanted to point out something my state Senator, Jeff Flake, said in an article, if only because before today, I don’t think I’ve agreed with Jeff Flake about anything. From an article in the New York Times:

The Republican leadership in both houses of Congress have accused their Democratic counterparts and Mr. Obama of failing to entertain even the smallest changes to the health care law, which they have said is deeply flawed and harmful to businesses.

But among the rank and file, more and more Republicans are saying they believe they have no cards left to play.

“We’ve called their bluff, and they didn’t blink,” said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. “At this point it would kind of strain logic to assume that going deeper into this when Republicans are likely to get the blame will benefit us more.”

Bold emphasis is mine.

Last week, I was discussing the then-hypothetical government shutdown and described the situation as a game of Poker (Texas Hold ‘Em, of course). The Republicans are trying to bluff with a pair of threes while the Democrats are sitting comfortably on a nice King-high straight. The only difference between my assessment and Flake’s is that Flake suggests the Democrats kept their nerve even when Republicans called their bluff. In my scenario, the Democrats weren’t even trying to bluff. They didn’t need to bluff. They knew who did not have the political capital to keep up in this high stakes game and they knew who would be paying out the nose for the resulting fallout. Hint: not them.

The frustrating and somewhat scary part is that the Republicans played their hand anyway even though rationally, they should have folded as soon as the cards were dealt. It speaks to the level of dysfunction within a particular group of that particular party, which is frankly terrifying.

The sooner Republican voters oust this fringe element that has turned their party into a gibbering mess, the better it will be for all of us. Right now, we’re not stuck with a deep schism between a conservative party and a liberal party. We’re watching the struggle between a slightly-right-of-center party and an insane party.

Contrary to popular conservative depictions of socialist liberals such as myself, the majority of us don’t look forward to the Republican party’s spectacular and implosive collapse. Indeed, we’re rational enough to realize that in such a scenario, the deposed would do all in their power to drag everyone down with them. Which, come to think of it, seems to be exactly what’s happening right now.