The Unincorporated Man

With classes nearly finished I found time to read a science fiction novel given to me by one of my delightful gentleman friends. It’s called ‘The Unincorporated Man’ and is written by brothers Dani and Eytan Kollin. As a first novel it is… fabulous. And interesting, and a little confusing. There are similarities to Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ but mostly in structure and basic story arc: it’s essentially a two-part book with the first half exploring how a stranger from the past fits into the world he wakes up in and the second half following his adventures getting the world to fit his personality. There will be spoilers here so if that bothers you, you may want to skip this review until you’ve read the book.

The main character, Justin Cord, is a wealthy older businessman, widower, and cancer patient living in the early twenty first century. He spends his billions on a suspension unit that will freeze him until such time as he can be safely revived. Because he distrusts the world, he has himself hidden in an empty mine, entrusts his faithful assistant to administer his affairs, and has all record of his tomb and efforts to defeat death erased. Three hundred years later he is revived into a society that has developed nanotechnology, eliminated aging, can revive any deaths provided there is minimal brain damage, and has terraformed several planets, the moon, and the asteroid belt. This, of course, is all expected: these are the technological wonders we dream of and would not be surprised to discover were we able to travel centuries into the future. What is unexpected, however, is the social change.

Every child, at birth, is incorporated. They are given seventy five thousand shares of themselves, their parents are given twenty thousand, and the government is given five thousand making a total one hundred percent. In order to fund education and pay for medical costs, a person sells shares of him or  herself to raise money. The shareholders are then able to exercise certain rights over the incorporated person. These include the right to do a psychological evaluation (nanobots essentially rebuild your nervous system should they deem it necessary), the right to audit your assets and, in the case of a person who holds fifty percent or less, dictate which school you attend, job you hold, and where you live. Corporations have their own currency, private companies provide the services that in our era are under the jurisdiction of the government such as public defense, utilities, courtroom proceedings, and most transportation, though roads and a few other things are still the government’s job. It is a utopia in that no one ages, most people don’t die, everyone has access to adequate food and shelter, and people are generally entertained. They’re happy and content and many are essentially slaves.

Into this world comes steely eyed, blue blooded, free and brave Justin Cord who spends the first half of the novel learning why, exactly, he can’t fall in love with Neela, why people are content with corporate ownership of each other, how to interact with his ‘avatar’, why virtual reality is prohibited, how nanotechnology works and how to use it, and the history of the grand collapse of society shortly after he was entombed. It is interesting and entertaining. The reader experiences along with Justin the delights of fast travel, gourmet food, technology that changes anything into anything else, and huge new buildings.

The second half of the novel begins at Mardi Gras. This holiday has become a system-wide week of insanity. It’s the week where anything goes. During this week people get body modifications so thorough that a woman can actually be a succubus, complete with functioning wings and tail, and a man can be a spider with a spinneret and eight long, hairy legs. Justin and Neela finally consummate their passion and Justin finally decides that he wants to start a movement to end incorporation, or at least make it voluntary. What follows is a series of physical and legal battles against the premier corporation and it’s primary underling, Hektor Sambianco, over Justin’s lack of incorporation

Though Justin becomes an instant celebrity, he is also an instant enemy of all who believe incorporation is critical to a functioning society. The major players in the heroic drama come and go. Hektor’s fortunes rise, fall, rise, fall, skyrocket, are nearly assassinated, and then float off into the mist of the sequel, so we must read it to find out how he continues to go after Justin. ‘The Chairman’ is a mysterious figure who often seems to work against Justin but is ultimately an ally. Even the underlings play a dangerous game of deception against each other to throw everyone off balance. In all this chaos, a revolution breaks out, terrorists begin attacking, new foes rise and fall in a dozen pages, our hero nearly changes his mind, then becomes firm in his convictions, then wavers again. For a short time I actually wanted him to give in, to incorporate, and to find out it’s not as bad as he thinks it is. I’ve never rooted for the bad guy before, but one conversation between Hektor and Justin is so compelling that I wouldn’t have been surprised, may even have been pleased at the turnabout, had Justin given up and become part of this strange land.

I’ve always enjoyed watching new universes unfold in the minds of authors. I love seeing the characters they devise, the worlds they share, and their imagining of what humanity might do when confronted with certain circumstances. In that this novel rises admirably. It is a new and interesting concept, this personal incorporation thing, and it makes a certain sense. If I own a share in your stock, I get part of what you make. Ok, what if you fall ill? It’s in my best interest that you get well again as soon as possible. What if you are not content and your productivity suffers? It’s in my best interest that you have some way to feel better, say bringing your family with you to a remote assignment. In theory, incorporation takes the interest we have in ourselves and uses it to make us responsible for each other. In reality, it turns minority shareholders into slaves, subject to the desires of their stockholders. It is this that Justin sees and this that The Chairman has observed over his lifetime.

The concept is thought provoking, the characters are down to earth and the pacing is fast enough that in one night I read nearly half the book, because I had to know what happened next! However, the last few chapters seemed rushed, forced, and a little too neat. The reader is left with a few loose ends, but we are promised a sequel so no worries on that. What does worry me is the sheer number of times the reader is thrown back and forth in ideology once we get near the end of the novel. Justin ‘wavers’ and considers what the opposition has to say. The opponents come out of the woodwork but the read is given too much, too soon. We meet them, know their personality, and then they are removed from the novel all in a chapter or two, it seemed like. Plus there’s this whole side plot of the avatars having gained sentience and influencing humanity with only one of the billions of people figuring out they are self aware. It’s… a bit too full of plot devices. It would have been well served by a bit of streamlining, or by having all those twists and turns actually end with a climax other than the patent “hero gets the girl and leads a revolution which the reader can essentially assume he will win.” Overall recommended but wouldn’t read it twice.

I’m less inclined to read the second novel in the series as I am to read more of the novels given to me a few weeks ago. I’m trying for one review a week but we’ll see. With school nearly finished I should have less guilty time and more actually free time.