Jennifer Government, Max Barry

AusReading Month 2021

Emma/Book Around the Corner had at least two goes at getting me to listen to Jennifer Government (2002) and to appreciate the SF writing of Australian, Max Barry (1973 – ) as I had heard of neither. So thank you Emma, I appreciated the experience so much that I repeated it. Ok, to be honest, I retained so little first time round, that I had to re-listen to be able to write a review.

Max Barry, research tells me, is a Melbourne marketing type guy, who writes fiction, film scripts, computer games and blogs (here). Jennifer Government was his second novel, after Syrup, which was made into a movie, of which I also had not heard.

The setting for Jennifer Government is a near future when Australia and most other countries have been incorporated into the USA. A near future in which every neo-con wet dream has come true and big business is almost entirely free of the shackles of government. And social services are a pipe dream (except in much-derided Europe) because of course big business doesn’t pay taxes (so, much like now).

I found the book both well written and entertaining. Without any info dumping we discover that employees’ surnames are now the names of their employers; schools are sponsored by corporations (whose names the children bear); during the course of a shooting we find an ambulance can’t be ordered without credit card details; when the victim of the shooting dies, her parents are required to pay all the costs of both the investigation and the subsequent prosecution.

We can laugh, but like much SF, this is a fair analysis of the direction in which our society is trending.

There is a large cast and a sweeping story line. It goes something like this: Hank Nike, just a merchandising clerk, runs into John Nike, guerilla marketer and John Nike his offsider/fixit man. They offer him the chance to join Marketing and wave in front of him a multi page contract with very small print, which he signs, only to find that it calls on him to shoot dead 8 shoppers for the new range of Nike shoes, thus demonstrating how desperate shoppers are to get them. All the stores are stocked up in advance. Consumers are led to expect there are only a limited number available. In fact there are 500,000 pairs at $2,000/pair. A billion dollars.

Hank’s girlfriend Violet – no surname, she’s unemployed, working on a new computer programme/virus – persuades Hank to go to the ‘police’, a sort of Pinkertons (if you read Westerns) and they, for a large fee, agree not to prevent the murders, but to carry them out themselves, though it subsequently turns out they in turn subcontracted to the NRA.

One of the shootings, at Chadstone shopping centre – and it is a joy in this (deliberately) American accented read to so often run into familiar Melbourne place names – is witnessed by a French Australian stockbroker, Buy Mitsui who is traumatised when he fails to prevent the schoolgirl victim, Milly, from bleeding to death.

Jennifer Government has had information that the shootings are to occur and is one of many agents stationed outside Nike stores around the country. She is unsuccessful in stopping the Chadstone shooting and is shot herself, saved by her bullet-proof vest but falling four floors through the atrium to land on the roof of a Mercedes lottery prize.

This is an action story, but with a difference. Violence is not glorified. Jennifer is a single mother, her daughter Kate aged 8 at a Mattel school (and hence, Kate Mattel). JG is forever making promises to Kate which she cannot keep, and when John Nike is promoted overseas and she takes off after him, she chooses to leave Kate in the care of the man whom she met and slept with just the previous day.

Meanwhile Violet, beats up on the second John Nike when he attempts to rape her, and is then taken up by Exxon Mobil who want to use her virus to disadvantage a competitor, Royal Dutch Shell; she leaves Hank who takes up with her sister who in turn introduces him to her protester friends.

The corporations, with John Nike somehow in the lead, go rogue and the government attempts to rein them in. It all comes to head in a meeting in the House of Commons in London, at the end of which John Nike has hired an unwilling NRA gunman to assassinate the President.

SF is often outrageous when it is written, and surprisingly close to the mark a decade or two later, and such is the case here. Read it as SF or read it as Satire, it works either way. But read it.

I don’t know why Max Barry and Jennifer Government haven’t been on my radar. Are they on yours? Maybe they are better known overseas than in Australia. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention. But I am now.


Max Barry, Jennifer Government, 2002. Audiobook: Audible, read by Michael Kramer, 2004. 9 hrs

see also: from Guy Savage/His Futile Preoccupations, a Max Barry fan –
Jennifer Government (review)
Other Max Barrys (here)
Guest post on Whispering Gums (here)

34 thoughts on “Jennifer Government, Max Barry

  1. I suspect, from what you say here, that Michelle de Kretser has read this, because there are echoes of it in the heavy-handed satirical (?SF) part of her new book, Scary Monsters…


  2. What kimbofo says. Guy introduced him to me. I’d never heard of him and he still doesn’t appear I places I see or read. I did buy one title for Mr Gums but still haven’t read him myself.


    • Is Mr Gums sitting beside you? Did he like it? I put a link to Guy’s guest MM, in which he says – in 2011 – that Barry is better known outside Aust than inside. I wonder why that remains the case.


      • He’s asleep next to me in the motel room… Not feeling the best. My memory is that he didn’t rave over it, though I thought it might have been up his alley. His tastes are hard to pick!

        And thanks for the link. It made me reread Guy’s post… Such an interesting post! I’ve got a few good recommendations from Guy including hard boiled crime for Son Guns. He loved a couple and went on to read more.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you do Lou. Audible is where I got mine from. I have two recommendations from you waiting for me to spend a credit on them – Woman on the Edge of Time and Shards of Honour – but I also own about 20 Ausdible books I’m yet to get to. If you like Jennifer Government check out Max Barry’s website, or Guy’s for further recommendations.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m really glad you enjoyed yourself.

    He’s good, isn’t he? Jennifer Government stayed with me, not necessarily the details of the plot, but the general idea of a world dominated by corporation alliances who fight to be in power.

    Guy from His Futile Preoccupations is the one who hooked me up on Max Barry. He’s read them all and I have read almost all of them too. (Billets on my blog about Syrup, Company, Jennifer Government, Machine Man and Lexicon.)

    Syrup is excellent but Company had me in stitches. The satire of the corporate world is hilarious and so spot on. Machine Man is about science enhanced bodies and Lexicon about language.

    PS : I think you’d like the Charlie Hardie trilogy by Duane Swierczynski. (Fun & Games, Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot) It’s another writer I discovered on Guy’s blog and they’ll be excellent audio books for your driving hours.


    • I looked for Jennifer Government on Book Around the Corner but didn’t see it, though you have plenty on Max Barry. Hopefully I and my readers will all be influenced to try his other books, though it doesn’t seem Guy has had much luck so far.

      I’ll go away now and search on ‘Duane Swierczynski’ – BorrowBox says no result, but there’s always Audible.


  4. One of the Canadian bloggers definitely reviewed this, because I’ve heard of it before. I’m going to see if there’s an audiobook copy at my library. This book reminds me so much of the topic of Savage Girl by Alex Shakar, which is futuristic but not so much as Jennifer Government, and an analysis/criticism of advertising.


    • Ok, that gives me three recommendations arising out of. They’re all in my list (from which I see I can now tick off Jennifer Government). You got me on to Becky Chambers but I see Marita Fowler and Linda Yuknavitch are still waiting for me to take action.

      It took me to a lot of new places checking out Jennifer Government reviews, but I can go to Canada. (Can I say I’d rather they got their SF from Max Barry than from Margaret Atwood?).


  5. I gave Mr Books a copy of Barry’s latest book, The 22 Murders of Madison May earlier this year. It was one of his lockdown reads and he loved it. The alternate/parallel universe storyline is one his favourites though, so I was pretty sure I had got him something that he would enjoy. He’s very keen to read more by Barry now as he liked his style.


  6. I suspect the most widely available speculative fiction writer (*ahem*) in Canada is Cory Doctorow, mainly because he has opinions about copyright so his work is liberally available. (And I’m just poking at you, I believe he fits into science-fiction rather than specfic.) Story-driven, idea-rich, some YA and some adult…all probably good driving material. I’ve got a few SF/FAN books tucked away for 2022…I’m looking forward to catching up a little. There are plenty of other Cdn sci-fi writers, even a few with mainstream presses, but I know you don’t need any temptations added to your print TBR whereas Doctorow should show up on audio.


    • I “know” the name, Doctorow, but that’s probably EL. There’s none of either on my shelves. So I’ve downloaded Little Brother by Cory D. All I need now is work so I can catch up on my audiobook reading.
      I’m probably buying fewer than 10 new books a year (for myself) and no second hand since Covid, but I’ll never read all I’ve already got anyway, and then there’s Audible – a new book every month – and the library/BorrowBox…


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