books book reviews

dystopian political sci-fi novels

reviewed by T. Nelson


Jennifer Government
by Max Barry
Vintage, 2003, 321 pages

i f you were traumatized in childhood by accidentally reading a really bad novel, consider this your trigger warning.

Jennifer Government is about a dystopia where America has a privatized government. Without the benevolent hand of government, corporations kill customers for profit, ‘social justice’ is ridiculed, poor people are expendable, and police murder people for money, using NRA members (you know, the bad guys) as subcontractors. Companies launch commando raids against each other. People dream of someday moving to France.

All the characters take the company they work for as their last name. So Jennifer Government is the name of a government employee. She goes after the killers. The bad guys swear a lot. People get bullet holes in them. Some of them die. The end.

Political fiction is cheap. No skill is required: you put whatever words you want in the characters' mouths to make proponents of the ideas you hate, like deregulation and ‘corporate greed,’ look stupid. You present improbable scenarios and have your cardboard cutouts walk right into the traps you set for them. All Max Barry's characters talk and behave exactly the same way; they are blank slates that he seems not to know he was supposed to fill with ideas and personalities instead of just bullet holes.

That's a shame, because he's making a somewhat valid point about what could happen in a pure libertarian anarchy state. But instead of thoughtful criticism, we get a black-and-white world that's about the same intellectual level as an Occupy protest.

Many writers try to emulate 1984, but writing good dystopic political novels that bring readers over to your side is harder than it looks. You end up either writing a thousand-page speech or, as in this case, something that looks like it ought to have pictures.

jan 11, 2015