Sunday, March 4, 2012

Libertarian Science Fiction: "The Unincorporated Man"

Review: The Unincorporated Man
By Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin
(Macmillan USA/Tor)

Cover from Macmillan USA/Tor
     One of my favorite science fiction books is the (sadly out-of-print) 1952 classic The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. Among other things, it won the first Hugo Award for best sf novel of the year and helped to inspire the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s (which in turn inspired the steampunk movement I'm always droning on about).  I don't know if the Kollin brothers read or have even heard of the book, but the title The Unincorporated Man seemed to me to be a partial homage to the earlier novel, and so I was immediately intrigued.

     I didn't get around to reading the book, however, until an interview with the brothers appeared in Locus magazine. It turns out they are a couple of seeming libertarians, possibly objectivists (as in the philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged) and politically and fiscally conservatives, and the book has been accurately described as Heinleinian (for Robert A. Heinlein, author of the book Starship Troopers, upon which the films of the same name are based, as well as libertarian classics such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) . That doesn't jibe with my political leanings, but their description of the plot of their novel (now a three-volume series, with volume four due out this summer) and the philosophy behind it intrigued me. So, overcoming my disliking for multi-volume series by heretofore unpublished novice writers, I gave it a try. At least I was fairly certain it wouldn't have dragons or elves or heroic quests.
     I liked it, but I'm not sure I'll bother with the rest of the series; it seems complete enough as is.
     The philosophic idea behind the book is that in the future, people will be run like corporations. At birth, everyone is invested with so many shares, 20 percent of which go to the government in lieu of taxes, and 25 percent to the parents. The remaining 55 percent may be bought and sold like stocks. Any people who don't own an outright majority of themselves are subject to their stockholders' wishes in where they live, what career they pursue, etc. In this way, the Kollins imagine, society will have a vested interest in what happens to people because they profit or lose based on whether or not the incorporated people prosper.
     Into this future comes Justin Cord, a multi-billionaire from 300 years in the past (shortly after our present time) who had himself cryogenically frozen before he died of cancer. He is the oldest human to ever be thawed, and the first from before incorporation (other contemporaries were destroyed before thawing during the Great Collapse, a calamity with all the worse elements of the black death, 1929 stock market crash and 9/11, only worse).  
     As the only unincorporated man, he causes a societal upheaval. Most people want him to incorporate, but he resists, seeing it as slavery. Eventually, a movement forms around the idea of ending incorporation or making it voluntary, with some (but not Cord) willing to indiscriminately kill large numbers of people to effect this change.
     By the end of the book, there's a partial resolution, but with enough left unresolved to fill another three volumes, apparently.
     In the Locus interview, the Kollins' describe incorporation like they think it might be a good idea, and for most of the book most of the characters do as well. It's brought unparalleled prosperity to most of the planet (and space colonies). Aside from providing services and owning 20 percent of each person, the government doesn't really interfere. Even the legal system is privatized. Towards the end, however, an unexpected character reveals he-or-she is also opposed to incorporation, and lays out convincing arguments against it. So I don't know how the Kollins' really feel. Perhaps they are of two minds.
     I like that ambiguity. I don't know how I feel about it either. Incorporation (along with nanotechnology) has ended hunger, but it almost amounts to slavery for the poor (those who own a minority of their own shares) who are considered "penny stocks." Is it better or worse than the world in which we live? Sometimes, because some people are still bastards. "The Unincorporated Man" got me thinking, as the best science fiction can.
     So, why am I unsure I'll read The Unincorporated War, The Unincorporated Woman or The Unincorporated Future? Because reviews have indicated that most of the second book involves more space battles than political or economic philosophy. I don't often like science fiction that involves explosions and mass death and ray guns. I'm actually considering skipping it and going right to book three.
    The Unincorporated Man didn't win a Hugo Award, but it did receive the Prometheus Award, given out for best libertarian (science fiction?) novel by the Libertarian Futurist Society, which “was founded in 1982 to recognize and promote libertarian science fiction.” For more information and other winners and nominees, visit the LFS website here.
    For more by and about the Kollins, visit their blog here and Dani's blog here.


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