“I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Harriet Tubman
I learned from hard experience it’s extremely difficult to define utopia, but dystopia is dead easy. I made this discovery in a Composition II class where our whole semester was a group project culminating in one assignment which would constitute 100% of our grade. The groups, constructed by the instructor, were to devise a utopic society and present that society in a twenty-page report along with a presentation, which would include pictures, cut from magazines or other media. (This was the 1980’s when color printers and web images were not readily available)
Pretty quickly, our group realized none of us shared the same utopic vision, particularly when you mixed in the few requirements of our societies that our instructor specified. We had to have a mission, purpose, and some kind of identity among other things.
In a fit of honesty, we defined our idea of dystopia. Lack of freedom was the first descriptor. We couldn’t choose who we worked with or the project we worked upon. Further, we had no ability within the class to speak out about the assignment or our group members. Those of us who wanted to succeed had success defined for us by others.
The Unincorporated Man fits much of that description. And like the best dystopic fiction, this book builds on the hot issue of abuse of corporate power and takes it to one of the worst possible outcomes. Three hundred years from now, no one’s born free. From their first breath, the government owns five percent and their parents get a twenty percent share. Siblings also gain some control in hopes that ownership will reduce family rivalry. For their entire lives, people are forced to live by majority rule and fight for control of their own destinies.
Books like The Unincorporated Man shadow our dreams and make thoughtful readers ask “what if” when they see similar themes in their society. I definitely did after reading 1984 and Animal Farm (my first and still some of my favorite dystopic fiction) I have actually recommended this book to several people of all political strata, including Jasmine, a lovely young college student who had the most evocative ink I’ve ever seen on the inside of her wrist – it was a UPC code. Jasmine told me the tattoo was her form of protest of the commodification of people. The barcode would scan for out as a liter of Diet Coke®.
So, what’s the story? Three hundred years in the future, a tunnel rat (mine scavenger) is exploring an abandoned mine. Modern mining methods have made it possible to recover minerals previously thought unfeasible. He’s hoping this find will help him gain majority. Owning fifty-one percent of his stock would mean unprecedented control of his life and the ability to make decisions his other stockholders mostly could not overrule.
What he finds instead is a big black box which may well have belonged to Pandora. On closer examination, he realizes the box is a cryo-chamber. Reanimation and nanomedicine have extended the lives of this present generation to well over a hundred. Some people are even working into their late 100’s. But, this isn’t the standard cryo chamber and something tells the miner he might have gotten a better break than he ever imagined.
The “corpesicle” the miner found was a man from our times who hadn’t opted for the standard cryogenesis, which had actually failed in the first generations. The staff of the Boulder, Colorado hospital, including Dr. Neela Harper, a reanimation specialist, fought the corporate structure to give the man back his life and heal him. What finally aided them was an anonymous ten million dollar donation that even the mighty corporation could not trace.
What they discovered was they’d just revived the most dangerous man in their society, the only person who was entirely free. And this particular unincorporated man was even more dangerous. That man is Justin Cord, a billionaire from our time was born free and he still remembers the history of slavery. According to the book, President Winfrey from his time ran on a platform which included reparation to former slaves.
Having been a celebrity in his own time, Justin is also well-versed in dealing with the press and corporate tactics. It doesn’t hurt at all that he’s handsome and the reanimation program brought him back younger than he was at his death.
But not to fear. GCI, the corporation that reanimated Justin has their best man working to get Cord to sign. Justin’s barely warmed up before Hektor Sanbianco’s on the scene with papers and not so veiled threats. Hektor’s the kind of man who gets what he wants—“what you couldn’t steal outright, you could attempt to steal with incessant litigation with the hopes of eventual settlement.”
Most of the society would agree with Hektor and GCI. Why? The best answer this reviewer can give comes from another writer of an excellent dystopia:
“Every faction conditions its members to think and act a certain way. And most people do it. For most people, it's not hard to learn, to find a pattern of thought that works and stay that way. But our minds move in a dozen different directions. We can't be confined to one way of thinking, and that terrifies our leaders. It means we can't be controlled. And it means that no matter what they do, we will always cause trouble for them.” Veronica Roth, author of Divergence
The minute Justin starts speaking out, people start thinking again and considering what it means to be truly free. The question is—will the future society force Justin to incorporate? When The Chairman of GCI can have someone killed without a moment’s concern for the consequences and the company owns the contract of the woman Justin loves, the stakes are extremely high.
The Unincorporated Man is not what I’d term a page-turner, which may be a good thing. Most of us don’t have the time it takes to thoughtfully read a near thousand page book in one sitting. This is one story that’s best absorbed over a two or three sessions. Characters and concepts are carefully drawn by a detail-oriented author who plays chess with his paper people like a master. Even the antagonist’s name—Hektor Sanbianco—is brilliant.
I don’t generally make recommendations about book format; however, I will in this case. Due to the length of The Unincorporated Man, I found the typeface in the hardbound volume small and difficult to read. I was much more comfortable with an ebook and the ability to adjust sizes and change typefaces at my discretion. Freedom—even in the smallest choices, is very good.
Rebecca McFarland Kyle