One of the things I love about science fiction is that the writers can take small things about our society, extrapolate from them, and come up with fantastically frightening stories. In Dani and Eytan Kollin’s The Unincorporated Man the idea of owning stock is transformed into a weird blend of capitalism, social welfare, and slavery.
A few chapters, hinting at how much time has passed and how much the world has changed, set the scene. The main action starts when a suspension sarcophagus is found and the man inside revived. For a while, Justin, the protagonist, is like a time traveler and has the new world explained to him. For the most part, he can swing with the nanotechnology, near instantaneous travel, and colonies on just about every planet in the solar system. But what Justin can’t accept is the new economy. Rather than owning stock in companies, people own stock in each other. Part of a person’s earnings go to the government and the other people who own stock in them. Throughout the book, Justin refuses to incorporate–in spite of the very interesting arguments to incorporate himself.
Aside from Justin’s anti-incorporation stance, there isn’t a major plot arc. Instead, the book reads as a series of episodes. There are trials, assassination attempts, wild Mardi Gras parties, and nanobot attacks. But just when you think that this is going to be the big show down, the Kollins wrap things up within a chapter or two. And then the last chapters are a clear set up for the next book in the series. If I had to chart it out, the plot of this book would look like an active heart monitor. After a while, I had to adjust and stop reading it like a 400+ page story and read like like a long series of connected episodes. It’s a minor adjustment, but it let me enjoy the book a lot more.
Whenever I get to talking about communism with people–which happens more than you might think–we always come back to the conclusion that communism failed because it never took human nature into account. Sure, people can be wonderful to each other, but we can also be utter bastards. Capitalism functions better, but there are still parts of society that suffer for various reasons. In the world of The Unincorporated Man, the worlds run on a modified form of capitalism where people own stock in each other. Curiously, it plays on the self-interestedness of people. In order to get profit from the people you own stock in, you’re more concerned with making sure they get enough to eat, medical care, education, and a good job. People are motivated to work by the hope that someday that can own a majority of their own shares. I can see how it would work, given my cynical view of people in general. But it’s a depressing concept to contemplate. Brilliant idea, but very depressing.
For the most part, I think, the Kollins live up to the originality and possibilities of their premise. Where they falter is in their pacing and characterization. The characters are hard to get to know. Once you get past the initial set up, the characters don’t change and we never really get past their surface motivations. For example, why is Hektor so hell-bent on getting Justin to incorporate? Why is Neela so willing to throw off her social conditioning and start a relationship with a resurrectee? The pacing is strange. It’s episodic. Parts are rushed, with tons exposition and information dumps about things that I would have preferred to see play out.
There is a sequel, The Unincorporated War. I wonder if the Kollins have improved their writing. The Unincorporated Man isn’t a bad book. It’s a very interesting read. It just has some hiccups in the writing style.