REVIEW: Time Magazine

Lev Grossman
10th February, 2003

Firm Warfare: Two good novels about very bad companies

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of Eric Blair, known to posterity as George Orwell, it seems appropriate to ask whether he got it wrong. In 1984 Orwell was worried about all-powerful governments, but these days multinational corporations are richer, scarier and more ruthless than many mere nation-states. Has Big Brother left public life for a more lucrative position in the private sector?

This question probably sounded more urgent before the advent of John Ashcroft and his charmingly Orwellian Total Information Awareness program, but it's still well worth asking. In Jennifer Government (Doubleday; 321 pages), Max Barry imagines a near future in which our lives are so dominated by our employers that we take their last names.

Barry's hero, Hack Nike (see how it works?), is a low-level cubicle dweller who gets embroiled in a scheme to stage a series of killings as a promotional gimmick to sell sneakers; it's murder as advertising. Out to stop the plan is Jennifer Government, a beleaguered agent of a Federal Governmnet so cash strapped that she has to hit up the victims for money before she can fight crime.

Barry is a smart writer with a Cassandra's gift for dark-edged prognostication. The story should be depressing, but the author manages to make it extremely funny. When Hack goes to the police, they give him a choice: he can be arrested, or he can subcontract the murders to them at a perfectly reasonable rate.

Barry's book is a satire set in a nightmare future. William Gibson's Pattern Recognision (Putnam; 356 pages)...