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.)


1 Comment

  1. Paul (@princejvstin) said,

    Hunh. This is the sort of book I’d expect out of Baen, not Tor.

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