Reviewed by Daniel Burton
A brilliant industrialist named Justin Cord awakes from a 300-year cryonic suspension into a world that has accepted an extreme form of market capitalism. It’s a world in which humans themselves have become incorporated and most people no longer own a majority of themselves.
It’s a premise that Ayn Rand would love and a character that she might have created; a world recovered from the excesses and failures of government she predicted in Atlas Shrugged, at the apex of human achievement due to the capitalist system she loved and trumpeted in her egoist philosophy. And that civilization is at a turning point, due to the extreme nature of this future society’s form of capitalism: individual capitalism.
Justin Cord wakes from a cryogenic sleep to a world where each individual is incorporated at birth, their shares traded on the open market. Using the capital raised through sale of shares, individuals finance their education, business ventures, homes and investments. Corporations—real companies, not just individuals incorporated—are more powerful than governments, produce and regulate their own currency, and control the lives of the individuals in whom they own stock.
And that’s the rub for Cord. For while he is and was an avid defender of capitalism in the 21st century, incorporation of the individual strikes him as a form of slavery. Despite the unprecedented wealth and technological progress it has created, Cord can’t help but see injustice in the system of ownership of others. As he pushes back, fighting against the giant corporations that want to own a piece of him, he begins to reveal cracks and fissures that will lead to systemic change and revolution.
Ostensibly science fiction, The Unincorporated Man makes deft use of futuristic technologies. We see a world of “haves,” who own luxurious homes constantly and fluidly reshaping to the whims of their owners, and “have-nots” who live in “fixed” dwellings of wood and steel and who are lucky to own a small percentage of themselves. Virtual reality has not only been developed to an apex as good and better than reality, with some horrifying results. Artificial intelligence is an integral and essential part of daily life, as is physical mutation by biological manipulation. Death is all but conquered, and even taxes are merely a portion of a person’s share that is allotted to the government at birth. It is, without a doubt, an amazing world.
Without a doubt, in taking principles of market capitalism to their extreme, combined with the most fantastic of futuristic technology, the Kollin brothers have hit upon an idea that is mind-popping in scope. I consider myself to be both very politically active and an ardent fan of the free-market system, but the Kollins kept me guessing, questioning, and reconsidering my assumptions and conclusions about democracy, capitalism, technology, and power. It is a libertarian world they want, and they never shy from promoting that world.
Indeed, if there are any critiques of The Unincorporated Man, it is the message in the novel, not even slightly transparent. The Kollins clearly consider the modern state of government with contempt, especially the “giving something for nothing” that modern government, in the Kollins’ eyes, seems intent to do. Their argument is that of the libertarian: by providing more freedom, more choice, and more capital, they argue, we can create more wealth, not just for the upper echelons of society, but for everyone. When people have incentives to create, they do. When given something for nothing, they do not create. When too much power is accrued to one person or entity, liberty is restricted and destroyed.
This is reinforced when the near utopian society of the far future, rather than continuing on to further glory, begins to fracture under the hubris and weight of unscrupulous and corrupted corporate bureaucrats faced with, as the premise states, one man “owned by no one and owning no one.”
The plot itself wobbles under the clear eyed idealism in the Kollins message. Nothing bad ever seems to happen to Cord. He always comes out on top, losing nothing in the process. Despite being the protagonist, the problems and obstacles that the Kollins set up for him feel almost contrived. As Cord overcomes each, I began to feel like he was like Midas, that everything he touched would turn to gold. He is, as the saying goes, lucky in love and life, and nothing in the story seems to slow that feeling. As a result, the novel occasionally seems to lack the tension that builds and creates tension in the plot and characters.
In spite of the heavy handed message and lack of serious plot tension, the creativity and speculation with which the Kollins create their world gives the novel wings. It’s a world that is alive, vibrant, interesting, and, as science fiction is supposed to be, thought provoking and, occasionally, mind blowing. Most importantly, I enjoyed reading it, and I enjoyed talking about it. I recommend it without reservation.
About Daniel Burton
Dan Burton lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he practices law by day and practices everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog lawafterthebar.wordpress.com where he muses on the law, current events, books, and ideas. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.