In the early 21st century, the corporate world assumes control of a failing America under the name of a new political party, the Conglomerates, whose platform is aimed at rewarding the economically productive nuclear family. Thomas Nevins' dystopic debut grasps at depicting the personal effects of a totalitarian government in action—one peculiarly obsessed with family values, at that—but it's ultimately captive to its own airtight premise.
Christine Salter is considered a success of the new single-party system, as the director of genetic development at a lab where biologically perfect children are manufactured to benefit the state. When one of Christine's employees is pursued by the state for deliberately allowing "problem" children to skip DNA tests, he disappears underground, and she confronts the ramifications of her work, apparently for the first time. Meanwhile, her mother has taken advantage of two new national programs to sell out her retiree parents, known as "Coots," and pay the state to remove her other daughter, Ximena. Christine's grandparents, George and Patty Salter, are duly separated from their valuables and stranded in Arizona in a state-provided shack with oatmeal rations and mysterious visitors at all hours, while Ximena joins the society of Dyscards, a group of teens and rebels who have created their own "Mole People"-style society in the New York City subway system.
The Age Of The Conglomerates relies on policies, not technologies, to entrap its citizens, with the help of basic electronic surveillance and ID bracelets. (Apparently, Social Security numbers will outlive Social Security.) But Nevins' depiction of the corporate takeover is simultaneously vague and totalizing in such a way that once these heroes are wound up, there's nowhere for them to go. At the point where the simultaneous worlds of the Cootsland camps and the Dyscards' settlements have been fleshed out, the third piece of Nevins' puzzle—the love story that's supposed to animate Christine into questioning her allegiance to the Conglomerates—is forced to bear more weight than it can possibly hold, especially when she and her paramour have exchanged little more than text messages. A subplot about the Conglomerates' parallel efforts to digitize the money supply and the emergence of a cash-based black market is a cheerful anachronism, but it's fobbed off onto minor characters without really affecting the protagonists' journeys. Intriguing but inert, The Age Of The Conglomerates can't be faulted for painting an overly rosy picture. Instead, it dully bears down to grind out all hope.