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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars political philosophy, 3 Dec 2010
This review is from: The Unincorporated Man (Paperback)
Contrary to the previous review by B. Adams, this novel is not a propaganda piece. The point of this story is to explore one, or maybe two, distinct ideas about how society might operate, through the eyes of a figure from the modern day. The protagonist, Justin Cord, does seem like a Heinlein hero, but he is not an Ayn Rand figure: the figures populating her books are one-dimensional, because her books are indeed deliberate propaganda (as she always admitted). The Kollins' hero, like those in Heinlein, has two dimensions: a few complications, but not enough to give him a fully realized character. Instead, though he has his moments of self-doubt, his inner conflicts exist mainly as a vehicle for the authors to consider their new idea. The antagonist, Hector Sambianco, is an even thinner character, and initially feels like a true comic-book villain, with no real motive beyond his desire to do harm to the hero. However, though he never really comes into his own, he is gradually revealed to be a bit more than that: he is simply a true-believer in the value of the society which the hero opposes.

Indeed, it's hard to believe B. Adams really read, or at least understood, this book. What makes this book interesting, and worth reading despite its literary shortcomings, is that while it is rooted in this clash of conflicting ideologies, it refuses to act as propaganda for either. The big idea here is "Personal Incorporation" - it takes the current curiosity in which corporations are considered legal persons, and inverts it to present us with a world in which persons are legal corporations. This world has a unitary world state, which is a minimal state with no power of mandatory taxation. To make up for this, the state has a 5% share in each person's income. The other 95% can be traded on the open market, with parents initially owning 20% and the individual retaining the rest, and can never own less than 25% of their own stock. People sell their stock to get funds, for education, to buy insurance, and so on. The resulting world is divided into a class system with "penny stocks" owning only a quarter of themselves at the bottom, and owning "self-majority" a major transition like coming of age, which many people never reach. Our hero, Justin Cord, is a billionaire frozen cryogenically in the 20th century, who wakes into this world, and who has never been incorporated. The essential conflict of the book lies in the attempts of the rest of society, personified by Hector Sambianco, to get Justin to incorporate and sell off part ownership of himself, as against Justin's unwillingness to sell ownership in himself, which he feels is tantamount to a kind of slavery.

In other words, this is different from Ayn Rand's parables of indiviualistic capitalism confronting collectivist communism. This story contrasts individualism and freedom with a kind of corporatist capitalism. The essential fact about this society is that because everyone is accountable to their shareholders - especially those lower-class who don't own a majority of themselves - it is a highly conservative society that stifles risk-taking and personal freedom. The villain, Hector, sees this as a form of stability - an aspect of society created after the so-called "Grand Collapse" in which the economy fails after fully immersive virtual reality leads to a general loss of interest in reality, and in (in the language of libertarianism) personal responsibility.

If there is a polemical point here - and there is - it seems to have more to do with pointing out the contradiction in the argument that equates the corporatist form of capitalism with the libertarian idea of personal freedom. True, this is essentially framed in the language of American right-wing politics, but it takes the form of the opening of a debate within that culture which has mostly been ignored. It does this by incorporating criticisms of corporatism which have previously only been taken up by the left.

The sociological debate is the driver of the plot, and the main interesting thing about this book - the tacked-on romantic subplot, and the thinly drawn character of a terrorist inspired by Justin Cord, seem to exist only to give a backdrop to his motivations and self-doubts. I rate this book with four stars with the caveat that you should enter it expecting political philosophy in fictional form, not great literature - but this form has a long and perfectly respectable history dating back to Plato and giving us the word "utopia". The setting is familiar from Heinlein or Asimov or any number of SF books - a high-tech society with tall buildings, easy space travel, and other predictable advances, but with its sociology as far removed from ours as ours is from the world of 300 years ago. There are political machinations and occasional action sequences, all rendered in Hollywood-style, and perfectly satisfactory if that's all you expect from them, and set the shortcomings aside as basically beside the point of the book. If you have ideological commitments that prevent you from accepting the premise that a minimal state might be able to function at all, or a distaste for individualism, you won't find this interesting. If you're able to entertain these ideas, without necessarily committing to them, this is one of the best explorations in fictional form of the tensions within modern ideas about political economy in several years.
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