Volume 28, Number 2-3, Winter, Spring 2010

The Unincorporated Man

By Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin

TOR, 2009
Reviewed by Chris Hibbert

Dani Kollin & Eytan Kollin’s The Unincorporated Man is a wonderful exploration of an economic idea, in the vein of Barry B. Longyear’s Circus World series. Circus World looked at what might happen if a society tried to base all interpersonal actions on buying and selling. The citizens of that society were descended from a crashed circus spaceship, and they paid one another for everything: unsolicited advice, pulling out a chair, telling a story around a campfire. If the benefits weren’t obvious, you might have to pay people to listen to your spiel, which is the position of the protagonist in that story. Building a story around the exploration of an outlandish idea is a common approach in science fiction, and this story is a great addition to that genre.

In this novel, the Kollin brothers explore an idea that might have been invented by Robert Shiller: fund education and other personal development by allowing investors to take a share of a person’s future income. In the society presented here, everyone is incorporated, and the government, parents, higher education, and others own shares in a person to compensate them for the work they’ve done raising that individual. Most people start out with a minor stake in their own net worth, and many of their options in life are controlled by the investors. Those who do well can use some of their earnings to buy back shares and try to gain control. Getting to “majority” is a big deal, but it’s not enough to be in control of your own destiny. You have to get to 70% or so in order to protect yourself from minor setbacks and lawsuits from investors who can claim that you aren’t doing all that you owe for the shareholders’ value.

There are obviously lots of potential drawbacks with this kind of system, and the events in the book illustrate them well. But there are also many ways that this could work out, and many people who might be better off if someone else would benefit from ensuring that they got all the training and support that would help them to provide the best value to the economy. Since everyone in the society takes the system for granted, they provide arguments and illustrations for how well it works, and how the system enabled them to reach their present position, even as they struggle to gain control of their destiny.

Into this society (a little more than 300 years in our future) steps a man from our present. Justin Cord was a successful industrialist, a powerful, ethical, individual achiever who built a business empire before having himself cryonically frozen in the face of a cancer diagnosis. Cord didn’t trust the standard cryonics providers, guessing that they would be attractive targets in the time between his de-animation and revival. He is proven correct—many others were frozen, but all the known preserved remains were destroyed in the riots after the great collapse. Cord has a contemporary outlook, with a strong pro-freedom bias, and doesn’t accept the idea that anyone else should own his shares. This causes numerous problems, which gives the Kollins many opportunities to explore the implications. Cord’s struggles to remain free make him the target of the world’s dominant company, which has some good reasons and some bad reasons for not wanting any exceptions to the world’s economic set-up.

The characters are very well drawn; even the bad guys have a mix of noble and ignoble motives, and are smart enough to be worthy opponents. Cord himself has strengths and weaknesses, so his actions don’t have an air of inevitable success (other than his ability to survive amazing attempts on his life.)

The story does a very good job of showing both pluses and minuses for each side of the debate. The story is rich, and the characters constantly interesting. I think this book deserves to be a Prometheus award finalist. It takes a strong position that liberty is important and worth fighting for, and the characters spend their time pushing for different conceptions of what freedom is. I’ll have to read a few more of the nominees before I decide whether it’s my favorite.

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