Tor, 2009, 479 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1899-2
If you look on the cover of Robert J. Sawyer’s early novels, you can read the following quote by Spider Robinson: “If Robert J. Sawyer were a corporation, I would buy stock in him.”. As a cover blurb, it’s memorable. As a social principle, though, it’s something else.
Something that Dani & Eytan Kollin are willing to explore in their debut novel The Unincorporated Man: As a cryogenically preserved businessman wakes up hundreds of years from now, he discovers that everyone is incorporated: To raise money for education, housing and other personal needs, people sell shares of themselves. Parents get 20% of their newborn’s shares from birth and government gets 5%, but the rest is up to the incorporated person. The catch is that investors do have a say in what their investments do, and someone who doesn’t own a majority of their own shares may not be free to do as they please. Naturally, share prices go up and down, which creates both social classes (“pennies” whose shares trade for mere cents) and mobility. Weddings take the form of mutual stock exchanges; the implications go on.
It’s an intriguing idea to explore, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to stay there. Alas, our time-travelling hero doesn’t have much choice. Fortunately, he quickly gathers up a solid group of friends that teach him everything he needs to know about his new universe. Flying cars, nanotechnology, near-immortality and what seems to be world-wide peace and happiness: It’s not a bad future, even for those without a majority of shares in themselves. But the notion of personal incorporation proves to be intolerable for our protagonist, who fights off all attempts to regularize his unincorporated status. It escalates, especially when a powerful corporation takes an early interest in him.
I picked up the book mostly for its premise. Personal incorporation seems like an idea borne out of free-market capitalism run wild (the book begins by a quote from Milton Friedman prefiguring the concept) and not something I’d be keen to see in practice, but I always enjoy that kind of social thought experiment.
What I had missed on the cover blurb was that The Unincorporated Man interrogates the premise of personal incorporation from a libertarian perspective. Oh yes; if ever there was a sure-fire nominee for the Prometheus Award, The Unincorporated Man would be it. Regular readers of these reviews already know that I consider libertarianism a philosophy for and by aliens; in fact, it a kind of thinking that looks silly as soon as you step outside a very narrow American perspective. But I see no point in belabouring the point further, except to flag that my ideological biases are orthogonal to the authors’ –and so the rest of this review should be read accordingly.
This being said, I do believe that it’s possible to write a libertarian novel that would appeal without reservations to foreign left-leaning pinko socialists like myself. Unfortunately, that would require a bit more subtlety than what we get in The Unincorporated Man, which lumps the ACLU with pedophiles, has a pathological aversion to taxes and can’t help but take snide pot-shots at the New York Times like the worst right-wing bloggers of today. No one will be surprised to find out that our protagonist’s distinguishing quality is that he is very, very rich. The novel may interrogate personal incorporation from a libertarian perspective, it doesn’t change that there isn’t all that much philosophical ground between libertarian utopia and the one portrayed in the book. Whatever objections are voiced against personal incorporation tend to take the form of “Raaaah, freedom!” rather than the more reasonable “it doesn’t work!” because, in the universe of the novel, everything is rigged for it to work.
This left-bashing is not a good idea in that it only makes me more critical of the way the novel argues with the reader. And this is where it’s obvious that The Unincorporated Man is a first novel. Let’s start with the title, which presupposes that in the entire whole wide world, there is only one person (our protagonist) who is left unincorporated. Although the novel spends very little time outside the US, or even considering non-American perspectives, we are led to believe that everyone on planet Earth, no matter which race, nationality or religion, has adopted the unfamiliar social contract of personal incorporation. Notwithstanding an unconvincing “virtual reality apocalypse” that, in the back-story of the novel, has dramatically reduced the population of the Earth, how did that work? How did you convince various constituencies such Muslims, Hindus, orthodox Jews, dirt-poor peasants and political activists of all sorts to buy into such a scheme? How do you convince them to stay with it? The Unincorporated Man quickly takes on the feeling, so familiar to libertarian fiction, of a pocket toy universe –not a serious work of extrapolation. This lack of complexity, subtlety and sense that this is a real world is actually a blessing in disguise, because it allows the book’s problems to be dismissed as being nothing that libertarian self-posturing.
It’s a good thing that the book is so concerned about its central idea, because it’s not going to convince readers based on the strength of its prose. A throwback to old-fashioned SF writing, The Unincorporated Man is written bluntly, with little to offer in terms of finer literary qualities. Readers asking for polished writing may wince at the unapologetic usage of old-fashioned plot devices, or the way our hero so quickly assembles the group of friends that will see him to the end of the novel. The structure of the novel doesn’t do much better, audibly shifting gears from a first-half description of the world to a second-half that is increasingly concerned with fighting the system. The book ends, but not the story: we’re told to expect a trilogy in much the same vein.
But as I page through the book, I am reminded of editor David G. Hartwell’s quote (relayed by Michael Swanwick) that “I have infinite patience for hearing why somebody’s work is good and none whatsoever for why it isn’t.” So it is in that spirit that while I found much to dismiss or dislike in The Unincorporated Man, it’s has engaged me at a level I wasn’t expecting. Even as I kept arguing against its simplifications, I found within its page a good chunk of the fun that I expect from a Science Fiction novel: new ideas, straightforward writing and characters who are, basically, winners. It has a ludicrous premise, unconvincing world-building and ham-fisted writing, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days (usually leading to a description of the novel to friends and acquaintances) and that seldom happens with better and more respectable SF novels.
What irony: that a limited novel with which I may profoundly disagree would end up capturing a larger part of my imagination than other more respectable works. If I take a look at the short-list of last year’s SF novels that have grabbed my attention, The Unincorporated Man remains in good company. Granted, 2009 hasn’t been such a good year for SF novels: Highly-anticipated books by authors like Sterling and Doctorow were lifeless on arrival. But at some point, novels are as much what you make of them than what they contain, and in this light, I have no trouble suggesting a look at the Kollin’s first novel… as long as you know what to expect.
[August 2010: I should be careful about what I wish for, because follow-up The Unincorporated War is a lot less focused on libertarian ideas and considerably duller as a result. The action largely moves off-Earth as the unincorporation forces wage war against the old system. Anyone wishing for Solar System-based space combat will be happy with the results, even though the novel is far less intellectually provocative than its predecessor. The writing isn’t necessarily better, and neither are the characters: the end result unfortunately feels restrained to the point of being boring. It ends on a false cliffhanger just in time for the third volume in the trilogy.]