Firm Warfare

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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 Government 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 Recognition (Putnam; 356 pages) is a serious thriller set in the dystopian present. Gibson, best known for the seminal cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, tells the story of Cayce Pollard, a "coolhunter" who gets paid to spot hot new trends for marketers. In her private life, Cayce is obsessed with a series of short films that have appeared anonymously on the Internet. These are enigmatic, surreal scraps of footage that exude an overwhelming melancholy — kind of like the video in The Ring, but sad, not scary. Trouble arises when the two sides of Cayce's life short-circuit: a billionaire marketer gets wind of the films and hires her to find their creator, so he can use them as a marketing tool.

That's how Gibson, without departing from the conventions of a glossy, well-paced international thriller, gets at something more ominous: what he views as the subtle treason of the marketer, whereby something decent and good (like a painting or a rock song) gets trivialized into an object of commerce. Good faith, through no fault of its own, becomes bad faith. None of which means Orwell was wrong, but there were dangers, real ones, that even he didn't foresee. After all, the age of thought-crime and Newspeak is still a few years off, but 1984 has already been turned into a TV commercial for Apple Computer.