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The Unincorporated Man
Dani Kollin & Eytan Kollin
Tor, 479 pages

The Unincorporated Man
Dani Kollin & Eytan Kollin
Dani Kollin is an advertising copywriter currently living in Los Angeles, California. Dani has also worked as a creative director and copywriter in the print, broadcast and new media fields. In addition to being happily married and the proud father of three children, Dani is also an avid endurance cyclist and surfer.

Eytan Kollin is a teacher of history, government and economics currently living in Pasadena, California. His hobbies include historical reenactments, chess, and battle recreation with historical melee weapons.

ISFDB Bibliography: Dani Kollin
ISFDB Bibliography: Eytan Kollin

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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Science fiction readers and writers have long touted the genre's status as a literature of ideas. It's one reason that faults of lack of characterization or lapses in style can be overlooked on the grounds that the ideas presented are so interesting and captivating that they in essence become equal to, if not superior than, the more traditional values of mainstream fiction. But there's a trap that lurks for any writer who wishes to tackle big subjects like history, economics and philosophy in a work of science fiction. That trap is to become so intent on presenting the author's own ideas and interpretations that dissenting or competing views are lost or ignored, cheating the reader of an honest discussion of ideas with a long history of competing viewpoints. It's a trap that The Unincorporated Man, despite an intriguing premise, falls into, to the detriment of its effectiveness as a work of fiction.

Here's the set-up. Justin Cord, a multi-billionaire from our own time, used his wealth to develop a working cryogenic suspension device. When he is taken ill, he uses the device to freeze himself and is revived three hundred years later in a world where governments hardly exist and society is run almost entirely by corporations. Even individuals in this new society are incorporated, and most people spend most of their lives trying to acquire enough of their own stock to have control over their own economic lives. It's a system that provides basic health, food, and shelter to nearly all human beings, but to Justin the prospect of being owned by shareholders, by other people and corporations, smacks of nothing less than slavery. Thus begins a basic conflict in which Justin seeks to retain his freedom, while the forces of society conspire to force him to become incorporated just like everyone else.

It's an interesting twist on the one man versus society plot, but it isn't long before problems of both style and substance start getting in the way of what should be a novel that thrives on the competing ideals of Justin's past and the new world he now finds himself living in. Let's tackle the stylistic issues first, as those are the first clues a reader encounters as to the problems with reading The Unincorporated Man.

As you might guess, there are a lot of comparisons made in the novel between society in our own century and life in the 24th. Fairly early in the narrative, an off-hand reference is made to a President Winfrey, who was elected on a platform of reparations for the African-American descendants of slaves. Assuming this is an oblique reference to Oprah Winfrey, it's the kind of statement that would fit right in with a satirical novel like The Space Merchants, but feels out of place in a supposedly serious novel such as The Unincorporated Man. It's a minor issue, but it's a crack in the credibility of the world created in The Unincorporated Man, mostly because it's hard to believe that anyone who has followed U.S. politics for the last thirty years or so could seriously believe that such an event could actually happen.

Other stylistic issues create bigger problems. Shortly after being revived, Justin Cord is interviewed by a journalist, at the end of which we are told that his (the journalist's) life will be forever changed by the actions taken by Justin Cord over the next few hours. The journalist then all but totally disappears from the story, and we never learn anything about how Cord's actions personally affect him. In addition, the story suffers from the authors' tendency to over explain things. Almost every line of dialogue by the major characters is immediately followed by an authorial explanation of the character's motives and true meaning. The result is to rob much of the narrative of dramatic tension, and takes away exactly the kind of mystery that many science fiction readers enjoy as a major part of reading a good SF novel. As a contrast, compare this approach to almost any novel written by Gene Wolfe or C.J. Cherryh, where the lack of explanation creates tension and intrigue, compelling the reader to focus in on every word in search of the clues that reveal hidden motives and strategies.

Now, as was stated at the beginning of this review, these are the kinds of problems that are typically excused in the name of writing a serious novel of ideas. The biggest problem with reading The Unincorporated Man is that the farther along the reader gets in the novel, the more apparent it becomes that the authors are not as much interested in presenting competing ideas as they are in presenting their own take on things, while brushing aside ideas that don't fit the world-view being presented in The Unincorporated Man. Here are a couple of examples.

First, in the history that leads from our time to the 24th Century of The Unincorporated Man, world governments collapsed around the end of the 21st Century when a world-wide catastrophe led to the deaths of nearly two-thirds of the world's population. That allowed corporations to step into the power vacuum and gain control of society. The question that immediately springs to mind is: Where are the churches? It's extremely hard to believe that in the near apocalyptic scenario envisioned in The Unincorporated Man that fundamentalist religions, be they Christian, Muslim, or otherwise would not have sought to expand their power and influence over the survivors. Yet, in the 24th Century society presented to us in The Unincorporated Man, organized religion seems to be almost completely non-existent, a situation that, ironically, given the authors propensity for over-explaining other elements of the story, begs for some kind of convincing explanation as to exactly how it happened.

Another example appears near the end of the novel. The corporate run society of three hundred years from now, we are told, is nearly immune from economic recessions, because recessions are caused by an "event or organization so imposing that it affected all economic institutions at once," and that "there was only one organization that had the power to do this," and that organization could only be a government. Yet our own recent experience casts doubt on truth of this proposition. The current economic crisis arose out of the derivatives market, a practice in which banks and financial institutions sold shares of risky debts in order to spread the risk around. The derivatives market was, in the United States, intentionally left free from government regulation as an experiment in the ability of markets to regulate themselves. The result was a bubble in the housing market as more and more risky loans were issued. When the housing bubble burst, it threatened to bring the financial institutions holding the debt down with it. Taxpayers were then told that a company like AIG had to be bailed out with taxpayer money because it was "too big to fail." If that's not an assertion that the financial institutions stuck with the bad debt had become so large and influential that their failure would "affect all economic institutions at once," it's hard to understand what else it could mean. The causes of economic recessions and depressions is one of the most debated issues in economics and history. The fault of The Unincorporated Man is not that it adopts a particular school of economic thought, but that it cheats the discussion not only by ignoring any contradictory facts or opinions, but goes so far as to assert that as a matter of historical fact no dissenting opinion even exists.

That's a problem that runs throughout The Unincorporated Man, and because of it the book disappoints in both the quality of its style and world-building technique, and also on the basis of its presentation of ideas. Science fiction is full of examples of books that are somewhat crudely written, but succeed because of the fascinating ideas they present. There are also numerous examples of novels that are compelling more for their prose style and characterization than in their utilization of any new or controversial ideas. The best science fiction novels, of course, combine both style and ideas into one great story. The Unincorporated Man, unfortunately, fails on both counts.

Copyright © 2009 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson is wondering whether his own personal stock will go up or down after reviewing The Unincorporated Man. Greg's reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.


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