Lexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I didn’t realize the “thriller about words” could be a genre, but I’m definitely on board. While most people recommend and remember Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” because of the cyber-punk and cyberspace elements, that book was really more about words and the idea of words as being able to have this viral programming effect on humans. For the nerd in your life who got into THAT aspect of “Snow Crash,” you’ll definitely want to recommend “Lexicon.”
It’s not a perfect book, but there’s a lot to love here. The author does a very clever bit of work with a dual narrative that moves around in time, but never actually states the time/date or any sort of “Then/Now” chapter notation. It’s up to you to figure out how the narrative pieces together, which you can do from context and feels incredibly rewarding as a result. I like it when books and authors treat their readers as very clever and able to figure things out; this is something else that author Max Barry and Neal Stephenson have in common and I approve.
The book is at its absolute best as it explores its ideas; what is a word, really? How much power do they have, in the literal sense of being able to reprogram human cognition. You’ll find yourself thinking about it long after you put the book down, which for me is always a plus; see the previous paragraph about authors and reader cleverness.
Where this book wanders away from being perfect is when it decides to be a thriller. Simply put, there are a few thriller tropes that really grate. We never really find out WHY the poets (the main organization) are amassing all of this power or why the main antagonist makes any of the choices that he/she (keeping it ambiguous to avoid spoilers) makes. We’re left to assume and thus the overarching plot has a bit of an “evil for the sake of evil” mastermind bit going on that’s at odds with how clever the rest of the storytelling is.
Regardless, this is a book that I can highly recommend, especially for people who like their fiction to feel as smart as they are.
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Jennifer 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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