Saturday, October 20, 2012

This Week's Book: Jennifer Government

Anyone interested in mid-2000s text-based browser games may find this interesting. Or if you want a light read.

October 14-20: Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Science Fiction (2003 - 150 pp.) 

The premise of Jennifer Government is relatively straightforward. Corporations are in control of nearly everything, to the point of peoples' last names being their employers. Said corporations carry around medieval Papal States-style militaries that they deploy against their competitors in Erie War type conflicts. The government lacks funding to the point that it has to ask complainants' families for donations  when pursuing criminal cases. Antitrust law is nonexistent, allowing for conglomerate collusion on a mind-boggling scale. Much of this is attributed to "capitalizm", which was allegedly a working title for the book and which, based on my impression of the book, does not have much in common with actual capitalism. 

The characters and plot are easily understandable, with the book's short span dedicated almost solely to the latter. The frequent switching between characters, leading to 86 tiny chapters broken down into six parts and an epilogue, is a nice format. Placing everyone as an automaton allows the reader to suspend disbelief about who the characters are except that they usually either hate their jobs or enjoy being cruel, which is well within what would be expected in a book like this. Any political commentary is reduced to more or less a caricature of what the left thinks of the right. Given the cornucopia of too much government dystopia novels compared to the dearth of not enough government dystopia novels, it passes. Comments related to how there used to be a community when there was tax come off as tongue-in-cheek more than anything. 

The environment surrounding Jennifer Government is arguably more interesting than the book itself. Max Barry created the text-based browser game NationStates to promote the book, which drew considerable popularity. Then the similarly text-based but more interactive browser game Cyber Nations drew a similar demographic, including alliances that drew their members directly from NationStates (the New Pacific Order being the most famous example). Given the staggering numbers of nations these games have recorded, Barry likely made more people interested in online political simulators than in his book. The other important side-issue is his claims regarding the use of actual corporations' names, which allegedly resulted in lawsuits. While I don't think anything in the book is worthy of a suit if only because it's all so completely unrealistic, I would personally err on the side of caution when using anyone else's trademarked name. 

Barry gives a great few lines in his Acknowledgements at the end of the book: "Most of the time, being a writer means sitting in front of a computer and fighting against the urge to play Minesweeper. It's like that for a couple of years and then you get published and everyone wants to talk to you at once. But some people are there from the beginning, and these are the ones you can't do without." That first sentence is as true as anything. The second one I certainly hope is true. The third one is a telling reminder of why people write in the first place, whether it's one of the more taxing books I read earlier this year or a sci-fi thriller like Jennifer Government

Ease of Reading: 10 
Educational Content: 1

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