REVIEW: TimeOut New York

Courtenay A. Kemp
January 30, 2003 (Issue 383)

Despite a multitude of action-movie cliches and gratuitous fireballs, the sci-fi thriller Jennifer Government may be the most fun you’ll find in a bookstore this year. Max Barry, a 29-year-old Australian novelist, sets his tale in the distant future, when many of the world’s nations have become “USA countries,” run by a central government, while a few corporations such as Nike, Pepsi and McDonald’s monopolize their markets.

In the new order of extreme capitalism, the police department is a publicly traded security firm, wealthy drivers cruise premium highways (eight lanes and no speed limit at $2/mile), a valid credit card is required to access 911 and, as the title suggests, surnames have been replaced by company designations (i.e. Violet ExxonMobil).

After building this cleverly conceived and richly detailed environment, Barry turns loose a cast of hackneyed characters in formulaic situations. It’s a testament to his talent that although you see right through the narrative shortcuts, you’re having too good a time to care.

As the story begins, Hack Nike, a timid cubicle jockey in the sneaker company’s Melbourne headquarters, runs into a couple of executives at the water cooler, who decide on the spot that they want Hack on their team and promise him a lucrative promotion. Only after Hack has signed the contract does John Nike, vice president of “guerilla marketing,” explain his plan: To spark controversy and boost sales, Hack must find ten teenage customers—and shoot them dead. Terrified, Hack can’t bring himself to do it, but he goes to the wrong people for help, setting off a chain of kidnapping, assault and murder.

Enter hard-bitten idealist Jennifer Government, a pistol-packing cross between Clarice Starling and The Matrix’s Trinity, who takes on the corporate super-powers and the future’s other evil empire, the NRA and its soldiers for hire. Barry attempts to ground Jennifer’s character in private emotional struggles—raising a young daughter alone, nursing her anger at an old betrayal—but he need not have bothered. We’re more than happy to root for Jennifer regardless. (Not surprisingly, the film rights have already been optioned by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s Section 8 Films.)

Full of wit, humor and imagination, Jennifer Government ultimately pulls off its over-the-top conceit.