Do you have a brick wall handy? Because hitting your head against that would be a more productive and more enjoyable experience than listening to The Unincorporated Man as an audiobook. This was the only format in which it was available through my library. Audiobooks are not my preferred format for reading. They can definitely be great if you have good material and a good narrator. The narrator here, Todd McLaren, wasn’t bad—but even he couldn’t make this book sound interesting. Even at 2.5x speed it took me a week to get through this, because I did not want to subject myself to yet another sermon. I only finished it because I knew I would enjoy writing this review—call it necessary catharsis—and, yeah, I kind of wanted to see how it ended.
The Kollins’ writing … let’s see, how can I best describe this? Imagine Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein having a dinner party together. (They each brought their own meal because it’s in their enlightened self-interest not to take food from their own mouths to share with another. Little did they know that they would suffer from food poisoning because the unregulated food market cut corners.) Terry Goodkind would be proud of the length of some of the speeches in this book.
Surprisingly it isn’t the philosophy itself that makes The Unincorporated Man so unequiovcally awful. I’m not as libertarian as Justin Cord or, presumably, his authors—but I certainly balk at the idea of personal incorporation. I share Justin’s repugnance at the idea of owning stock in another human being, collecting dividends on their earnings, having a say in where they live. The Kollins chose a great time in which to write and publish this book, because I am one of many people concerned about the way in which corporations exercise their power in our society. Personal incorporation might sound silly right now, but this is a dystopia I could see happening in one of our possible futures. So in this respect, the Kollins have certainly created a credible bogeyman.
But their terrible writing ruins any chances the book has of being compelling science fiction.
I am reminded of For Us, the Living, a Heinlein novel I read in my halcyon youth long before Goodreads. I don’t remember much about it, except that younger!Ben was super-impressed by Heinlein’s economic philosophies that appeared to create a utopian future. I suspect that present!Ben would be less impressed were I to revisit it. Superficially, The Unincorporated Man is strikingly similar: a man wakes up after a few centuries of stasis and discovers a supposedly “better” world with radically different economic policies. He then spends most of the book being lectured by a female companion, who is happy to explain not only the differences but the intricate details of how the systems function and how they came about.
It has been a long time since I’ve seen such a textbook example of terrible exposition. Justin, understandably, has a question about how this brave new world works. His companions don’t deliver the simple, curt answer one might expect. Oh, no. They initiate multi-page Socratic dialogues. Scenes that should be short and sweet play out like first-year university lectures on political science or economic game theory. Every character in this book is incredibly well-versed in the economic underpinnings of their society and willing to spout on about those underpinnings at length to Justin without much prompting whatsoever. The end result is that one can’t get more than a page or so ahead without hearing a lecture about how market forces are superior to government intervention or blah … blah … blah.
Look, the point of a philosophical novel is to edify through the plot and characters, not use them as transparent mouthpieces. Only Sophie’s World can get away with that shit, and that’s because it’s Norwegian and awesome, OK?
The Kollins also make the classic Goodkind mistake of letting their hero make big speeches about how his libertarian views are inherently superior to everyone else’s. Also, this gives him the moral superiority that allows him to ignore explicit threats to his friends and loved ones and shrug off any possibility that they might be harmed because he does whatever the fuck he wants—’cause he’s a libertarian badass, yo. Justin Cord could give Richard Rahl a run for his money with some of these speeches about how it’s tyranny to force an individual to do anything “for the greater good”. So what if Neela or Omad get hurt in the process? At least he has his principles!
Seriously, by the end of the book I was actually hoping Justin would give in and incorporate. I hate the idea of incorporation, but I was starting to feel uncomfortable hanging out with this guy. He strikes me as the sort of person who would let the Joker blow up that boat of refugees just because he doesn’t want to let the Joker impose his will on Justin. (I know Justin explicitly condemns violent acts, but he seems fuzzy about this whole violence through inaction concept.)
Related to this pervasive problem of infodump is the Kollins’ inexcusable abuse of the omniscient narrator to compound the problem with yet another layer of exposition. As a fan of Victorian novels, I’m more used to the omniscient narrator than readers of more modern novels might be. Yet even I was shocked by the heavy-handed way in which the Kollins use their narrator to flesh out characters’ backgrounds, thoughts, and feelings. Much in the same way that a single question from Justin could trigger pages of explanation, a single, unasked question from the reader would somehow prompt the narrator to go on—at length—about history or politics or current events.
The one lesson about writing you must take away from The Unincorporated Man is that less is more. The hard part about writing is not transmitting information to the reader but deciding what information to leave out to make the story work. The Kollins clearly haven’t mastered this yet.
Speaking of narration, can we talk about how, upon introducing a new character, the narrator immediately comments about their appearance? I don’t mean the narrator describes how the character looks; the narrator gives a judgement about the character’s looks and sex appeal. The women are invariably objectified through the male gaze. I question the Kollins’ conviction that cheap and abundant nanotechnology means everyone is going to be young and beautiful—if anything, it seems to me like that’s a recipe for allowing people to “let themselves go,” secure in the knowledge that nanites can fix them up and make them beautiful again at any point. But that’s their choice, of course, and I digress. I just wish they could introduce a woman without talking about how she’s, you know, average-level good looking for that society, but people would totally sleep with her anyway. Thank you, so much, for that crucial information.
I was looking for a book that imagined a future in which corporate capitalism has been taken even further than it has in our world. The Unincorporated Man is such a book. It is also boring, terribly written, and not worth your time.
I leave you with a rare image, because the Robot Devil really does say it best: