The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin (2009)

May 30, 2011 at 12:25 pm (science fiction)

The literary political-social dialectic and is alive and well, and being published by Tor: The Unincorporated Man looks like a political treatise disguised as a pretty good novel.  Cleverly, it sets up a conflict with one unfortunate aspect of its ideal Objectivist/Libertarian future society, and in demolishing that one aspect it leaves the rest of the socio-political structure intact and unchallenged.  As I said, clever.

For those not familiar with the modern Objectivist/Libertarian strain of thought – and I have to admit I’m only an interested observer, not an expert – I’ll try to sum up.  The ideology that I’m referring to holds that ensuring individual liberty is the best and highest goal of society, and the only legitimate goal of government.  Hence, the only appropriate functions of government are law enforcement and military protection.   Once all individuals are able to act with complete freedom in their own self-interest, so long as they don’t interfere with others’ freedom, then humanity will finally enter into a period of universal peace and prosperity.

This is, in my humble opinion, about as realistic as the notion that the abolition of private property will lead to universal peace and prosperity.  So as I read this novel, I frequently rolled my eyes, sighed, laughed aloud, and occasionally restrained the impulse to throw it across the room.

I didn’t hurl it because (a) the copy I was reading is a public library hardcover, and (b) it doesn’t really spend as much time on the ideological matters as I’m implying here.  It’s “just” part of the underlying structure, and it may only have leaped out at me because I’ve been paying attention to the way this particular meme set has been creeping into modern politics.

The actual plot revolves around Justin Cord, who arranged to have himself secretly cryogenically suspended at some point in the twenty-first century, and was only found and reanimated after some 300 years.  Upon awakening, he learns that reanimation is now routine, as are advanced nanotechnology and limited forms of artificial intelligence, space travel out to the asteroid belt and beyond, and a bunch of other things (including flying cars; I enjoyed his enjoyment of those), some of which seem to be pretty creative.

While he was disanimate, the world suffered a catastrophic economic, political, and demographic collapse.  The current society has climbed out of that abyss and dispensed with taxes; the world government provides court and law enforcement services in competition with private operations and does no regulating whatsoever, and currencies are produced by forty-seven different corporations.  And it’s a wonderfully prosperous, peaceful society, because corporations can be counted on to behave rationally, unlike governments.

I’ll pause here for you to think about Enron … Worldcom … Goldman-Sachs … certain US automakers … and whatever other examples you’re aware of.

The catch is something that Justin Cord, twenty-first century industrialist extraordinaire, can’t accept.  All human beings are formally incorporated at birth; the government gets 5% of the child’s shares, its parents 20%, and its education is generally paid for by sales of shares (unless it’s from a rich family).  Most people do not, in fact, own a majority of themselves, and therefore their choices (especially about employment) are limited by their shareholders’ input.

The theory, explained at a couple of different points at the book, is that when people or corporations own shares in a person, they will be interested in making sure that the person does well in life, thus increasing the dividends paid on the shares.

In the book, this works beautifully.  In the real world, as we all know, a lady named Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin that illustrated exactly how beautifully ownership of people actually worked; and I expect you could ask modern-day escapees from slavery how they feel about it, too.

So, the plot of the novel is about Justin, the only unincorporated human being in the solar system, his refusal to incorporate (because it feels like slavery to him) and the effect this position has on the society around him.  Because to begin with there is, in fact, a substantial level of discontent with this system; quite a few people own no more than 25% of themselves, for one reason or another, and have no prospect of ever being able to achieve majority control.  Justin winds up in the bizarre position of trying to convince the government to let him volunteer to be taxed (instead of the government getting dividends from 5% of him).

So, on the surface the dialectic appears to be about slavery vs. freedom.  Beneath the surface, the dialectic is our real modern world vs. the book’s ideal society, only reality doesn’t get to state its case, because the argument is all about the surface issue.

There are vicious lawsuits, good friends, a love story, political movements, terrorism, attempted and successful assassinations, nanotech bombs, and corporate politics all carrying the tale along.  The actual plot holds together pretty well, though I have quibbles about the love affair getting a free pass in the end, and about the transformation of the chief antagonist from arrogant idiot to arrogant genius.  And there are a couple of side issues that I’m not even mentioning, which I suspect may be important in the sequels (or may just be part of the world-building).

It’s the apparently sincere and earnest espousal of the basic ideological system that made it hard to keep reading.  And just to demonstrate that I’m not imagining this, a little research informs me that the novel won a 2010 Prometheus Award – given by the “Libertarian Futurist Society.”  Looking at their list of other winners, I don’t think that every winner is as good a fit as this one (Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch? Really?), but I think it helps prove my point all the same.

If you happen to agree with its ideology, I expect you’ll enjoy the book a lot.  If you don’t, this review is fair warning.  If you have no idea, I suggest you read up on the arguments for and against it before you try reading the book.  (Most of my information on this ideology comes from reading Fred Clark’s Slacktivist blog; but you’ll have to search for the terms Ayn Rand and Libertarian in particular, because he also covers a lot of other material.)

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The High King’s Tomb by Kristen Britain (2007)

May 22, 2011 at 9:39 am (fantasy)

I feel like I need to point out up front that this is actually a positive review of this book and series.  It’s just that there are some relatively minor things that bug me.

So, my local public library finally picked up the paperback of this third-of-four volumes and put it on the “NEW” shelf.  Well, at least that means I found it.

I’ve been patiently following this series since Green Rider was published way back in (checks author’s website) 1998.  Patience has been required, because the sequel First Rider’s Call did not appear until 2003, this third volume came out (in hardcover) in 2007, and the fourth volume, Blackveil, was issued in hardcover and ebook formats in February of 2011.

Am I going to say it’s been worth the wait for this third volume?  Yes.  Am I in raptures over the series?  Not quite.  It’s good, solid high fantasy, with good, solid writing (language, characterization, plotting, the works).  There are good, creative ideas in it, and some derivative ones.   I’m not, I have to admit, completely convinced that the basic story really needed four volumes to tell, but that’s more in the nature of a quibble (and one that I’ve felt more strongly about with regard to some other series).

About the story:  The country of Sacoridia has spent centuries recovering from a devastating war.   In that time, the use of magic has been abandoned by everyone except the elite corps of “Green Riders,” the monarch’s messenger service (their uniforms are green), and even they don’t “use” magic as such; they think they have “talents” granted by the magical brooches they wear.  Oh, and they’re “called” by magic.

Sound vaguely familiar yet?  They also have unusually intelligent horses; the secret of these is finally revealed in High King’s Tomb, and I have to admit it wasn’t anything I was expecting.  That’s the way the whole series has been for me: various vaguely familiar elements that usually turn out to be new models.  I know it’s asking a lot to suggest that any high fantasy be composed of all new ideas, but there’s enough of this in the series that it keeps me from enjoying it without reservation.

At any rate, despite its rejection of magic in a world where it actually does work, Sacoridia has not been ravaged by foreign magic-users … because the remnants of the Arcosian invaders who might be using it were locked in the Blackveil Forest behind a physical/magical wall (called the D’Yer Wall).  Garth Nix’s Sabriel, whose Old Kingdom is hemmed in by a magical wall, was published in 1995.  These two walls are in no way identical, except for being walls that keep evil at bay.  (I’m not clear, in either case, on why the evil doesn’t just go around, but oceans may have something to do with it.)

So.  Our main protagonist is Karigan, a merchant’s daughter who is drafted into the Green Riders.  By Volume 3, she’s settled into the life (which is not at all what she had in mind), helped to prevent the overthrow of the rightful monarch by his brother (and fallen in love with him), and managed to keep a breach in the D’Yer Wall from leading to the total destruction of Sacoridia.  Alton Deyer, descendant of the D’Yers who have forgotten their ancient magical building skills, is trying to figure out how to repair the breach and, as the book goes on, how to keep the wall from failing entirely.  Also, the book tracks the activities of the survivors of Sacoridia’s fifth column, descendants of the Arcosians who call themselves Second Empire and expect to take over Sacoridia any day now.  Their leader has magic – and she, by the way, seems to be a completely original (and chilling) character.

So, seriously, the historical background mostly makes sense, especially with the various reveals that finally turn up in this volume.  The plot actually zooms right along, making these elements I’m complaining about recede into the background most of the time (though the way horsemaster Damian Frost and his wife Lady reminded me of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry was a bit painful).  Did I mention the Eletians?  Tolkienish elves, with variations.  They and some of the other characters can traverse another dimension, which looks like an endless plain, which I think I recall from the early volumes of the Wheel of Time series (I only read the first two or three).

I think, as with the Wheel of Time series, that it’s not the presence of these familiar elements that bugs me; it’s the number of them (there are a few others that I haven’t mentioned).  I bet if the series were shorter, there would be fewer and I’d notice them less.  And I do have to say, the burial customs of the Sacoridian kings were a most unexpected and interesting touch.  I’m not sure they make sense in the larger cultural context, but they’re definitely different – and the tombs are the setting of the book’s climax, which features a revelation that I was definitely not expecting.

So, the story is sweeping, political, magical, sometimes military, and in this volume it’s clear that at least one god is getting involved.  There are vanishingly few instances of characters being stupid for the sake of the plot; in a couple of cases there are characters being more intelligent than I expected, which is a very nice thing.  There is only one thing that actually bugs me enough to nearly make me put the books down: Karigan’s main character quirk seems to be getting into embarrassing – even humiliating – minor scrapes.  In this volume, for example, she’s talked into going out with a young merchant’s son and winds up trying to fight in a fancy, restricting dress (humiliating) and later gets knocked off her horse by a porch roof (don’t ask).  I can easily see Karigan being played by Anne Hathaway in the movie.  But it undercuts her overall competence and, frankly, I personally hate embarrassment and hate seeing it repeatedly in a book (or a movie, for that matter).

Still.  The books are enjoyable reads, despite these things that bug me, and I hope my library gets the fourth volume soon, so I can read it.

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Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus by R. L. LaFevers (2010)

May 16, 2011 at 9:04 am (fantasy, historical fantasy, juvenile)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the juvenile and young adult shelves contain some good, fun fiction that isn’t the classics you remember (and may re-read from time to time).

The adventures of Theodosia Throckmorton are one of these.  Being the eleven-year-old daughter of obsessed early 20th-century British Egyptologists, Theo reads hieroglyphics almost as easily as English, and probably knows more about the ancient Pharoahs than about the British monarchy.

Her ability to perceive Egyptian curses seems to be an inborn ability, however.  But in a pleasing nod to practicality, being able to perceive the curses isn’t the same as being able to remove them – that takes research and experimentation.  And she’s done quite a lot of that; some of her discoveries surprise the older and more experienced men she runs into in the series.

This volume is the third of the series (the fourth, The Last Pharaoh, just came out this April).  Without going into spoilerish detail, Theodosia’s parents run (and practically live in) the Museum of Legends and Antiquities, and having managed to avoid being sent to boarding school, Theo also spends most of her time there.  The series involves three conflicting groups interested in the ancient Egyptian artifacts and magic that Theo knows perhaps too much about: the Order of the Black Sun (a cult), the Serpents of Chaos (another cult!), and the Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers (a secret government agency that deals with magical problems).

So.  Some of the artifacts that are in the museum are very powerful, and these groups want to get their hands on them.  Theo, with help from friends and occasionally the Brotherhood, has to figure out how to thwart them.  The magic is real – there’s a statue of Anubis that occasionally animates, and the plague of ambulatory mummies, and of course the wide variety of curses.

The stories feature actual Egyptian history and culture, as well as that of Edwardian London (crushing poverty, limited non-marriage opportunities for women and all).  They’re good clean fun, Theo is a clever but not perfect hero who sometimes gets in over her head, and I’m hoping my public library adds the fourth book to its collection so I can read it.

See also (where you can get a look at the Gorey-esque cover art, too).

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