Jennifer Government by Max Barry Abacus, £9.99

Trainers, terror and corporate tyrants
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The point of satirical dystopias is not to predict the future, but to deliver a stinging indictment of the present; Nineteen Eighty-Four is about 1948, which did not make it any less pertinent in 1984 or, for that matter, now. A double-edged joke embedded in Jennifer Government evokes Orwell's vision of surveillance-based totalitarianism. But the novel suggests that this power might be used for propaganda purposes against an enfeebled government by the organisations that Max Barry thinks more likely to wear the boot stamping on Winston Smith's face: the big American corporations.

Jennifer Government is set in an anti-globaliser's nightmare when Australia (and Britain) are "USA countries". The populace uses brands as surnames instead of the serial numbers in traditional dystopias. Here, the plot trigger is a "guerrilla marketing scheme" hatched by one John Nike. A minor employee in the Melbourne offices of the footwear firm is ordered to increase demand for a high-priced line of trainers by committing the random murders of 10 teenage customers. The idea is to foster the rumour that these commodities are desirable enough to kill for.

When the hapless Hack Nike tries to tell the police, he is manoeuvred into sub-contracting the murders to them. The shootings take place and sales climb, but Jennifer Government, a single parent with a barcode tattoo and her own grudge against John Nike, takes on the investigation. She finds one family willing to sell its house to fund the case against the daughter's killers. Meanwhile, Violet Enterprises, Hack's girlfriend, sells a computer security system to a credit-card alliance that opts to use her virus in a vicious market war. Thanks to John Nike's ambitions, it turns into armed conflict.

This is a fast read, peppered with neat gags about corporations run out of control and their tendency to crush regular people. It's structured like a combination of action movie and farce, as a largeish cast runs around the world, and Melbourne, at cross-purposes, never explaining enough to avoid disasters. But the brand-named characters seem off the shelf. Only the self-justifying Violet (who talks herself into believing she is a victim even as she commits atrocities) goes beyond the status of plot-function-with-attitude, to feel like a genuine archetype of this stripe of evil.

Unlike most dystopians, Max Barry does not imperil his commercial acceptance by delivering an unhappy ending. He tends to tidy away his arguments as the book closes, as if the world could now get on with its oppressions undisturbed. The rebels here, dilettante protesters, are just as silly and venal as the minions of the corporations.

We are left with the feeling that the novel's central opposition, between bad corporations and inept but well-intentioned government, is a false dichotomy formed in the period before George Bush. John Nike's cynical vision is that corporations should not even bother to corrupt politicians, but should treat them as irrelevant. In some ways, this is an American utopia: no one pays tax. In the real, dystopian, world of today, power will always be as important as profit.

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