Anti-Corporate Libertarian Futurism in "The Unincorporated Man"

Imagine the late, philosophical Heinlein crossed with cheesetastic 1980s Buck Rogers TV series, and you've got a good feel for political economy adventure novel The Unincorporated Man.

Written by California brothers Dani and Eytan Kollin, the novel has garnered advance praise from Kage Baker and Robert J. Sawyer, as well as earning its first-time authors a three-book contract with venerable science fiction publisher Tor Books. It's easy to see why. The book, in bookstores at the end of this month, will appeal to Heinlein's legions of fans with its themes of personal liberty and one man's political struggle with the State.

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In many ways, this tale of a twenty-first century man awakened from cryosleep in a centuries-away future is a conservative rejoinder to the political science fiction of left-leaning authors like Charles Stross and Ian McDonald. While those authors explore futures where diverse cultures and social systems thrive alongside each other, the Kollin Brothers depict a world where Asia has snuffed itself out with biological warfare and New York is the solar system's greatest city. Justin Cord, the man from our time, is a fierce individualist and entrepreneur who awakens in a world space travel is easy, cars fly, war is a distant memory, and there is zero unemployment. But he believes there is no freedom, and he must fight to liberate the solar system.

Justin's problem? Every person in the solar system is incorporated at birth and must trade their stock to get things like education and a decent job. Most people never own a majority of their own stock, and their "investors" can control what they do and where they live.

This economic worldbuilding aspect of The Unicorporated Man is the best part of the novel. The Kollin Brothers carefully and intriguingly explore what it would mean to live in a world of human corporations. Lovers trade stocks to show their devotion to each other; parents own 20 percent of their children's stock, so if they raise their kids right they'll get a good ROI. And stockholders have peculiar controls over their investments. They can order these investments to get "psyche audits," where the neurological structure of a person's brain is scrubbed (sometimes with disastrous results).

Though Justin views incorporation as a form of slavery, his new friends from the future see it as a perfect system for turning humans' natural selfishness into altruism. Because everyone can own part of somebody else, people are encouraged to invest in each other's success. An investor might help a kid get an education so that he can cash in when that kid becomes a famous physicist.

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But we view this future through Justin's eyes, and he is set on destroying the incorporation system using his power and considerable notoriety as the oldest defrosted human. It's interesting to see an essentially conservative, often-libertarian novel taking issue not with government but with corporate capitalism. This is the sort of book where men proudly call themselves sexists and Fox News has survived 300 years, and yet it also makes a passionate argument for limiting the free market. There's even a plug for taxation, and I won't give away how that works but it's actually pretty brilliant. The Unincorporated Man is Heinleinian libertarianism for a post-cyberpunk world where the new State is made up of corporations rather than government.

Unfortunately this novel fails (sometimes spectacularly) every time it veers away from characters debating economics or directly interacting with the incorporation system. The writing is clumsy and uneven, and there are a lot of plot tangents that should probably have wound up on the editing room floor. A whole subplot about the taboos against virtual reality in the future is cliched and boring; and another about a cabal of AIs who secretly run the world goes nowhere. Meanwhile the characters are about as three-dimensional as the ones on Buck Rogers. Justin is a manly hero who is good with money and his fists; his girlfriend Neela is hot and cries a lot; and the bad guys all seem to have Latino or Asian names.

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Also, and most frustratingly, we're never quite sure why Justin thinks the incorporation system is so bad. He's an industrialist who believes strongly in the importance of wealth, and he's no fan of the government either. Why doesn't he see the logic of the incorporation system and use it to his advantage? And why does he think people will be liberated by paying taxes and suffering greater extremes of poverty? Maybe we'll get the answers to these questions in subsequent Kollin Brothers novels.

While The Unincorporated Man will tantalize you in with its intriguing premise, it may wind up alienating you with a muddled follow-through.

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The Unincorporated Man via Amazon

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