Genevieve Williams's Reviews > The Unincorporated Man

The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin
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Dec 01, 10

Read from November 18 to December 01, 2010

I wanted to like this a lot more than I did. Its premise (a future where individuals can incorporate, buying and selling shares in themselves) is a really intriguing thought experiment, and I went into the book prepared to explore a world where this was a foundational element of society.

Unfortunately, I found the story unpersuasive: the future society (seen through the eyes of a 21st-century individual who has himself cryogenically frozen, and is lucky enough to have his capsule discovered by a mining prospector) is thinly described, its economics never really explored beyond the basic premise. Okay, I get that economics just isn't as attention-getting as spaceships and nanotech and car chases, but if you're going to base your story on some sort of Big Idea, it behooves you to have the story explore that idea as thoroughly as possible. Few arguments are presented for or against this way of life, beyond embracing the status quo (why does Neela love this system so much?) or recoiling from it in disgust (Justin Cord--note initials, because he does indeed turn messianic in the second half, which I found SUPREMELY ironic--considers it slavery), and neither of those is particularly explored. The example of slavery that Justin cites is, of course, the one that will be most familiar to this book's target audience. It also seems to be the only one anybody in the novel is familiar with. Developing and setting out a definition of slavery and comparing the dominant socio-economic institution of the novel to it would have been one way of giving the story and its driving idea greater dimension. But opportunities like this languish largely unexplored, and as such I found the whole thing unconvincing.

The novel also loses considerably in its second half. The first half is interesting, with characters introduced, undergoing some development, and taking action with clearly understood motivation. All of that flies out the window in the second half, in favor of increasingly breathless, superficial screeds about freedom without any thoughtful exploration of what that word means, or what it might mean to people who've lived their entire lives under the incorporated system. For that reason, the rapidity of the rebellion's development in the second half defies belief, relying largely on the actions of an avowed sociopath and on the charisma of Justin himself. Hektor, the villain of the piece, is a far more intriguing character who appears to have given his own ideals and motivations serious thought, even if we're still largely left to our own devices to figure out what they are.

The biggest gap, however, is any understanding of WHY this society has developed the way it has. If any such history is offered in the novel, I missed it; the author instead devotes considerable time and effort to explaining virtual reality's absence in this future (including an effectively chilling VR sequence during which Justin learns exactly why this is so) that, as far as I can tell, has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story. I suppose one could make the connection that society's VR addiction was irresponsible, and personal incorporation is supposed to guarantee responsible behavior. Okay, I guess. But that connection is not, to my recollect, explicitly made; nor is why humanity as a whole adopted THIS particular solution to the problem. No social institutions aside from corporations or governments appear to exist, which is just bizarre: a review on SF site noted the absence of any organized religion responding to or commenting on the worldwide social Grand Collapse; there isn't even a footnote to the effect that religions themselves were rendered irrelevant by an unsatisfactory response, which would be one possible scenario. There's little if anything about churches, communities, nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, or any of the other organizing bodies that exist in our world. If these don't exist in this future, what happened to them? And what replaced them?

The truth of the matter is, though, this book really didn't entertain me. Perhaps that's good, since entertainment is apparently considered dangerous in this future; it's hard to tell what people DO for entertainment, actually, aside from cutting loose during Mardi Gras. But though the story starts off reasonably well, the characters quickly lose any dimensionality they may have had in favor of serving as talking heads for various sides of the argument. Boring. Many characters are introduced, then abandoned partway through, including an ambitious, go-getting reporter who was also the only female character in the story who I found at all convincing or believable. Neela, who starts off well as a reanimationist working on the assignment of her life, is quickly relegated to love interest who readily sacrifices her career and social standing for Justin; if she struggles over this at all, those struggles take place off-screen. In fact, the gender dynamics in this story really bothered me; if anything, they've regressed in the 300 years that have passed before the story takes place. I'm pretty sure that at one point, someone is actually told not to worry her pretty little head about something. Seriously?

By the end of the book, I found myself growing impatient with the flat characterization, irritating gender dynamics, and increasingly polemical tone. When I got to the bit where somebody blames economic recessions on the government, adding the chestnut that their current society is recession-proof because the business cycle no longer exists, my suspension of disbelief snapped. I would love to hear the authors' explanation of how our current economic situation fits this scenario, particularly since one of them is (according to his bio) a "teacher of history, government and economics".

The thing is, though, I went into this novel prepared to be convinced: by good storytelling, interesting characters who behaved in a believable fashion, and a thorough exploration of the premise. What I got was a frustrating experience of being badgered by the authors whose characters functioned more as mouthpieces than as personalities, increasingly unbelievable plot developments, and irritation over rather than engagement with this future society as presented. I have no problem reading novels espousing ideas that I do not; if fiction has a useful purpose, it is to vicariously experience lives and ways of thinking that the reader never will, and thereby possibly develop some insight into them. The only insight I gained from this book is that my time would have been better spent with an economics textbook.

Also, I haven't been so annoyed by someone yelling "Freedom!" repetitively since Braveheart.
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