Sunday, April 4, 2010

Free at Last: a review of "The Unincorporated Man"

I am unfortunately that kind of person who has a hard time not finishing a book once I've begun it, even after I've decided it's worthless, but thankfully I'm finally free, free at last! from the nearly 500-page long The Unincorporated Man (2009) after putting it down and picking it up over the course of about a month and a half.  I'm almost exactly a year late with this review, as Annalee Newitz at io9 already said just about everything I have to say about it back in March of 2009, but I feel like I have to do something to recoup the time I lost reading it, so I'll waste just a little more time writing a blog post about it.

But I won't be as mean as a feel I could be, partly because this is the first novel written by brothers Dani and Eyton Kollin but also because, according to Dani's personal blog, their mother passed away this winter. condolences.

The premise of this novel is that a brilliant industrialist from our time, Justin Cord, is un-frozen three hundred years in the future into a world that, having survived both the Grand Collapse of the global economy and a plague of Virtual Reality that almost wiped out humanity with sloth, has become a utopia spanning the solar system thanks to the wonders of nanotechnology and society's universal embrace of an extreme form of market capitalism in which people themselves are incorporated and split into shares.  The (very limited) government owns 5% of an individual's stock, one's parents start out with 20%, and another 50% can be sold to whomever cares to invest in that individual's future productivity.  Most people own less than a majority of themselves.

The conflict is that Justin Cord views personal incorporation as a form of slavery and so refuses to comply with it, remaining instead the titular "hero."  This singular attitude of resistance threatens to resurrect once more the fractiousness and internecine strife characteristic of the "pre-GC" civilizations and shatter the supposedly dynamic and adaptable harmony of corporate culture.  (What would they have done if they ever met up with aliens?  Maybe you'll find out in the sequels.  I won't, but maybe you will.)

In spite of how nakedly Heinleinian the novel is in its masculine advocacy of self-righteous libertarianism, and also in spite of how fanboy-ish the tone of the novel was when it came to the practical magic of nanotech, I definitely enjoyed a lot of the world-building aspects.

Most of the standard tropes have been done better and more insightfully in other places.  For example, Pohl and Kornbluth at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum had a somewhat more adventuresome take on what happens when corporations take the place of nation-states in The Space Merchants.  Damon Knight, in Dio, thinks more deeply about the relation between freedom and death in a world where technology makes us virtually immortal than the Kollin brothers are probably capable.  And Harlan Ellison, when it comes to examining the cultural relativity of taboos (as the Kollins do primarily through through the "perverse" relationship between Justin Cord and his re-animationist/love interest, Neela), beats these fledgling writers hands-down in "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World," in which it is no industrialist but Jack the Ripper who finds himself awake in the far future.

Nevertheless, personal incorporation is a pretty novel idea, and the Kollins for the most part do an acceptable job thinking through the details.

But there are, regrettably, at least three major flaws that mar this debut work:
  • The protagonist is completely unlikeable.  Scifi has it's bastards...the work of authors like Zelazny and Gaiman is chock full of them, but Justin Cord is just a whiny, charmless Harry Potter or the girl from the Twilight Series. Childish.  Also, unconvincing as an eccentric billionaire industrialist.  He brought a box of Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch with him to the future because it was his favorite cereal.  That suggests to me that Cord is a little too transparently based on the lives of the scifi fans who wrote him.
  • The narration is about as childish as Cord.  It is uncertain whether the narrative voice is from the past (our time) and therefore partially justified in calling so explicitly and so often on 9/11 as a cultural frame of reference or from the future, and the result is awkward, superficially sci-fi idioms like "stop on a credit" instead of "stop on a dime."  I guess I should be grateful that at least they're not eating space-burgers and washing them down with space-beer.
  • Lastly, and most infuriatingly, the "freedom" Cord so values is never really articulated.  According to one character, Cord's definition of freedom "wasn't just semantic, it was intrinsic" (187), but Cord's calls for freeeeedoooom! never amount to more than post-Braveheart sloganeering.  You're really comparing incorporation to southern slavery?  I'd compare it to having credit bureaus.  
So, all in all, pretty crummy.  But you don't have to take my word for it.  The second book in the series, The Unincorporated War, comes out next month.

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