Monday, September 26, 2005

Double book review: "Incompetence" and "Jennifer Government"

“Incompetence” by Rob Grant
“Jennifer Government” by Max Barry

The two funniest books I have read this year have both been satirical black comedies set in extreme near-future worlds. In each book the author has taken some trends he perceives in modern society, extrapolated them ad absurdum, and had fun seeing how ludicrous he can make the consequences. In this the two books are very similar, but in the targets they take aim at they are diametrically opposed. “Incompetence” takes the mickey out of big government, the nanny state, and the European Union. By contrast “Jennifer Government” satirises America, and that version of free market libertarianism which is so extreme that it is sometimes called anarcho-capitalism.

The preface to “Incompetence” reads as follows:

“Article 13199 of the Pan European constitution: ‘No person shall be prejudiced from employment in any capacity at any level by reason of age, race, creed, or incompitence’” (Yes, the spelling mistake is deliberate – I wonder if Rob Grant had the same problem I did in preventing the software he was writing in from automatically correcting it !)

“Incompetence” is described as “A novel of the far too near future” and is set in a united Europe in which “Non Specific Stupidity” is a registered disability which cannot be used to hold back promotion prospects, waiters have Tourette’s syndrome, airline pilots have vertigo, etc. The story is told through the eyes of an undercover agent who is not what he appears to be, on the tail of a mass-murderer who is all too competent.

Where Rob Grant satirises an over-mighty European Federal government, the Australian Max Barry depicts a future in which his eponymous heroine Jennifer Government is one of the few remaining employees of a state which has been almost entirely privatised. For the two thirds of the world dominated by the USA, government, welfare, tax, and the welfare state have been abolished and the major companies run things to such an extent that most people change their surname to that of their employer.

Back when I was at University I met a number of people who actually wanted to live in a world like the one described in “Jennifer Government” – they thought that taxation is theft, money should be privatised, heroin and all other drugs legalised, etc. One of them, now an MP (though he has since grown up and is no longer an extremist – in fact he’s now arguably to the left of Tony Blair) once criticised me for believing in the National Health Service. Another told me that Libertarians had a lot in common with anarchists as they were “both anti-state.” All the major political parties have had problems with hardliners taking over their student wings, and these people were so over-the-top that when they took over the Federation of Conservative Students it eventually had to be shut down by Norman Tebbit for being too right wing.

Both books bear just enough resemblance to real world events to be very funny indeed, but if you take either of them too seriously you may be a trifle paranoid. If you’re into black comedy or satirical humour, I would recommend that you read both and gain additional amusement by reflecting on what a complex world we live in that two such completely opposite satirical visions both have sufficient truth in them to make the books work.

No comments: