REVIEW: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hunting for cool, and finding it

The date 1984 used to be a potent symbol for the politically literate, the title of George Orwell's boot-in-the-face dystopia about ultimate authoritarian government. These days, if the date comes up at all, it's in one of those "Greatest TV Commercials Ever" specials, referring to an Apple computer ad that ran once during the Super Bowl. Big Brother never stood a chance against the power of a kickin' marketing campaign.

Two very cool new novels work with variations on this notion, that branding now rules the world, using our culture's obsession with the Right Stuff --- not in the old Tom Wolfe astronaut sense, but in the Prada-Nike-Mercedes sense --- to take us to wonderfully dark places. William Gibson, already a brand himself thanks to his prescient sci-fi novels, is a one-author globalization juggernaut in the keenly written thriller Pattern Recognition. Australian novelist Max Barry is broader and more outrageous, if less developed than Gibson, in Jennifer Government.

Barry gives us what one character calls "a brave new commercial world" (a tip of the hat to Aldous Huxley's famous dystopia), ruled not by governments but by ruthless mega-corporations, in which every person takes the name of the company he or she works for. In the fiendishly perfect set-up, Hack Nike, a cubicle drone at the shoe manufacturer, is approached by Nike's marketing division and stupidly agrees to help them with their new "campaign."

To build street cred for its new $2,500 sneaker, Nike wants Hack to murder 10 random teens who have recently bought the shoes. He gets cold feet and goes to the police instead, but the cops think he wants to subcontract the killings out to them. (The police work for whoever pays them the most, and won't try to solve a crime unless the victim or his family coughs up the cash.) Practically the only character with the quaint, old-fangled notion of a sense of honor is the heroine, Jennifer Government, and even she has a bar code tattooed under her left eye.

Nike isn't the only company trying to make a killing in the market. McDonald's, Starbucks, AOL Time Warner, Visa, Wal-Mart and many others are all playing deadly turf war games. Using fake company names instead of real ones would have made Jennifer Government toothless, but you could probably have planted crops in the furrowed brows of Doubleday's lawyers as they worried whether these companies would understand that this is satire.