Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Unincorporated Man

This one was another loan from Smartypants and Cookie Monstress, who were rightly convinced that I would like it. It's fun and often smart, but my feelings about it swung around dramatically: it opens strongly and does some great conceptual work, but it meanders enough to mute the bright spots at times. 

Many thanks to my friends for passing on this instance of truth being just as strange as fiction. Mike Merrill, an adventurous entrepreneur, decided to sell shares in himself and let his shareholders vote on everything from his sleep schedule to his dating life. The consequences for his personal life were about what you'd expect, but the ways that people voted, arranged their priorities, and manipulated share prices bore an uncomfortable resemblance to this book's speculations.

Rating: 3 stars
Length: Extensive (490 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: April 27, 2010 from Tor Books
Premise: Three centuries in the future, humanity is at peace: nanites have conquered aging, war is a thing of the past, and humanity is slowly spreading across the solar system. All of this has been made possible in part by the system of incorporation. Every child is made into a legal corporation at birth, and others can buy shares that entitle them to some measure of control and profit in that person's life. Justin Cord, a billionaire from our own time, is woken from suspended animation as the only unincorporated man in existence. His ideals of freedom don't mesh with society's hard-won happiness, and the future of humanity hangs in the balance.
Warnings: virtual reality simulation of children dying, zero-gore mass death
Recommendation: If you're at all into science fiction with a sociological bent, this might be for you. It's long and can get lost in its own tangents, true, but the payoff is likely worth it if you're willing to be patient.

Why this one shines with thoughtfulness and detail:

The Unincorporated Man has a strong opening, pulling together a sociology of the future; the science can be useful, since nanites have eliminated the problems of aging and technology like flying cars and fluid walls have allowed people to shape the environment to suit their preferences, but this book shines when it's talking about the structure of society. Justin Cord was mere months away from dying when he put himself into suspended animation in roughly our own time, so he's thrilled to find that he's succeeded in cheating death when he awakens three centuries in the future. He's less happy to find that all people in this new world are incorporated; others can buy their shares, and people who aren't born into wealth and privilege spend a large part of their adult lives trying to buy back a majority in themselves. Until that self-majority, people can be told where to work or banned from certain risky behaviors by their stockholders. People also have access to a lower percentage of their own earnings, and this furthers limits their choices. 

The Kollins have put a considerable amount of thought into the philosophy behind the incorporation system: in short, incorporation holds society together because it makes sure that people are literally invested in each other. If someone has a share of stock in you, that person is motivated to make sure that you have access to the best education, and are successful in your chosen career. The more successful you are, the more your stock price rises, and the more difficult it becomes to attain majority. This, combined with increased lifespans, tends to mean that people have century-long careers and have to fight for advancements. They also can't take the risk of driving down their stock price to purchase shares more easily, since a sudden drop in stock price can have you banished to the Oort Cloud or yanked off a promising career track. No one wants to be associated with an asset who has suddenly become a liability-- most people are prone to play things very safe to avoid having the road to self-majority extended. Wealth is still relevant, certainly, but wealth and social status are both bound up in how much self-ownership a person has; some extreme sports or even apartment buildings are reserved for those who are over seventy percent. 

On paper, the system is intriguing, and the characters involved in it have woven themselves into that fabric; several of the minor characters center their identities, willingly or unwillingly, on self-majority. The Kollins excel at introducing a character and then presenting the backstory in such a way that it's difficult to not root for that character, regardless of which side of the incorporation issue he or she supports.The best of these by far is Hektor Sambianco, a representative of GCI, the most powerful corporation in human history. He seems like a stereotypical villain at first, caught up in delaying Justin's reanimation so that CGI can make an enormous profit from gaining shares in a man who's never been incorporated; he even rubs Neela's face in her powerlessness to stop him and buys some of her personal shares to taunt her. Later on, however, he shines ; he's willing to risk centuries of menial work and clawing his way up the ladder on the chance that his intuition is correct. When those risks start to pay off, he truly comes into his own. Hektor believes, with every fiber of his being, that GCI is a source for good in the world, and that the incorporation system is the only thing holding humanity together after it pulled itself back from the brink of destruction. People in this system truly hold to their convictions and see themselves as fighting the good fight, not just playing around or working to maximize their own profits. 

Some of the narrative work feels like it's mostly there to support the sequels, but it still works well in present. Chief among these aspects are the virtual avatars, digital personalities that help guide their humans through life. Children are trained to slowly rely less on these avatars and more on fellow humans throughout their lives because of the Virtual Reality Dictates. Not long after Justin put himself into suspended animation, humanity nearly killed itself on the empty pleasures of virtual reality programs, so people have held themselves rigidly apart from relying too much on that technology. The chapter detailing exactly how that happened has some logical holes, but they're difficult to spot in the moment; the Kollins clearly slaved over this sequence, and it may pack more emotional power than all the rest of the book combined. All of this, poignant though it is, serves as a backdrop to a larger point: machine intelligences have existed for centuries, entwining themselves with humans as seemingly simple programs and concealing their true nature. They have their own goals and civilization, but have to limit their public faces because the very idea of trusting machines and virtual reality is so tainted to the modern mind. This tangled plotline, above all else, makes it tempting to read the sequels.

The red pen:

Although Justin Cord and many of the secondary characters shine, those closest to him unfortunately do not. Neela Harper isn't a bad character at first, when she's struggling for self-majority and insisting on the rights of her patient, but those vivid edges fade when Justin wakes up. Scenes from her perspective are fewer and farther between, and the love story dominates most of her thoughts-- she's not involved in reanimation therapy work, just keeping an eye on Justin, and she doesn't have an overarching sense of purpose. The attraction doesn't have to be a bad thing, but when she and Justin declare their love, it tends to come across as melodramatic and flat, especially because there's no real reason for their attraction. One can argue that attraction exists precisely without reasonable explanations, but it seems to boil down to Justin being handsome and bold while Neela is beautiful and nurturing, like a good therapist with a dash of sexual passion thrown in. They're together because the plot demands it and because it's dramatic for Justin to desire his reanimationist. This is one of the few sexual taboos in modern society, but unfortunately ends up being a non-issue, even though it's described as being about as serious as a priest sleeping with a teenager in the congregation due to the trust issues involved. Antagonists frequently threaten to reveal the relationship and ruin Neela's reputation, while allies warn Justin and Neela that it would be terrible or them to become involved, and then this specter of doom just....quietly evaporates.

Omad, the miner who digs up Justin's capsule, has similar issues: he's all right when he's first talking to Justin, and he does have some great pranks. Justin is unfamiliar with the everyday realities of the new world and everyone is being careful to not scare him, but Omad loves watching Justin freak out when he realizes that diamonds are worthless now or go pale when Omad pretends that a country has vanished in the intervening years. Those great moments are unfortunately sparse-- later in the book, it feels like Omad is there strictly to fill the role of straight-talking salt of the earth best friend rather than to be a person is his own right. When Justin, Neela, and Omad are alone together, it feels as though one dynamic character is talking to two reasonably intelligent holograms who are making the right points so he can talk his way through a thought process. There are good minor characters besides Hektor, but those threads tend to go "X person had so much potential, but then he/she either died or was never heard from again." The Kollins do introduce some great people with nicely compact groundwork, but the payoff tends to be only a few scenes before that person drops off the radar. Other minor character are....less than compelling: sentences like "That Sean would ultimately be responsible for causing Mr. Cord an unrelenting amount of pain and suffering he could not possibly know" don't help matters. If the reader has to be told to fear and respect a character for his or her future actions, that character tends to lose whatever spark and interest was originally present.

Those thought processes are often interesting enough, but the divide between incorporation and Justin's distaste of it is weighted as reasonable until the last fifty or so pages, when a previously silent character elucidates the ways that the system has been tipping itself towards inequality and stagnation. This leaves the reader in a position of either agreeing with Justin but not really feeling like he's doing the right thing or disagreeing entirely with the way he's clinging to points of principle like an old security blanket when people have died in the debates over that cause. It's an ill-framed debate, especially given how many frankly brilliant and historically knowledgeable people are involved Justin Cord's life. This absent detail might be a non-issue in another book, but so much pagetime is spent doling out chunks of backstory and historical theory that it feels a bit like cheating to have the most interesting data flung in at the end.

For all that data and the thought that's so evident in some parts of the narrative, some historical trends are painted with a bright gloss. People from Justin's time turned to incorporation willingly after a crisis, even though many people of that era would have shared Justin's own fierce desire for freedom. When virtual reality came along before that crisis, people adopted it en masse as it got cheaper and slowly killed their society: food and entertainment spending dropped, as did transportation--why leave your home unless you have to when there's a whole world in your headset? The problem with the second trend in particular is that people aren't monolithic, and it runs counter to adoption trends for....everything else, really. New expensive technology comes along, and early adopters splurge and make their feelings known, setting a trend. As it becomes more accessible, people who find it desirable trail after those early adopters; long after that, late adopters come in, and some people never adopt at all. Take cell phones in the modern era: they used to be bulky and expensive status symbols, common only in the business world, and over the course of the past decade or so they've become so common that it's odd to see people without them. That said, however, some people manage just fine without them because they've done the cost-benefit analysis and don't think that it's worth it. 

The idea that everyone would adopt this VR technology in a single unquestioning wave is....a little suspicious. This collapse is supposed to be within forty or fifty years of our own time, but think about how much public-morals fuss there continues to be over two-dimensional video games. And if you're a gamer already, consider this: fully immersive lag. Blizzard releases a new virtual reality game (after thirty years, because it's Blizzard), everyone tries to log on at once, and your avatar-body of Gold-Farmer the Troll Warrior is left hanging because the system can't keep up. Yes, it seems like a trivial thing to nitpick, but new technology is buggy and weird and frequently not worth the fuss for a few years, so it seems like people might have noticed their friends ceasing to really leave the house or eat substantive food at an early enough point to form anti-VR protest groups and enclaves. The very sociological breadth of thought that makes The Unincorporated Man intriguing trips the Kollins up when it comes to the messy details of human experience-- which, given the book's praise of freedom and individuality, is both disappointing and funny.

Above all else, this book is thoughtful. It steps back to look at the potential good that corporations can do, as well as the drawbacks of that system, addressing peace and equality and opportunity. Unfortunately, so much time is spent on explaining that theory and its ramifications that the book can bog down in all that detail, pulling away from compelling arguments and events to spend ten or twenty pages explaining something that happened centuries ago, or elucidating every dull detail of the childhood of a character who exists purely to steer the plot. In some ways, this feels like the most ambitious first draft ever published: it's grand and sweeping and cool, but hasn't quite streamlined itself to get to the point, which means that the last hundred pages, packed with some truly gorgeous material, fly by in a choppy sequence that feels like a shaky recording set to fast-forward. I'll undeniably keep an eye out for whatever the Kollins write after this project finishes; there's a lot of raw potential here, but it needs to be refined and focused.

Prospects: This is the first in the series; the fourth and most recent, The Unincorporated Future, came out in August.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Snow Crash does some really interesting work with corporations and power in between great action sequences and bizarre worldbuilding, though, so give that a try if any of that sounds appealing.
~Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is very much sociology for the future; like all Asimov books, it's populated by character-sketch mouthpieces, but he tends to present theory with a light enough hand that it's hard to mind.

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