Note from Unincorparated Man


Read The Unincorporated Man if you enjoy near future (300 years) fiction with excellent world building and two fisted competent man science fiction. The world building focuses on cryogenics, minarchisism, financialization of personhood and wireheading and there effect on society. I enjoyed the book enough to read it exclusively on two 5 hour plane trips due to the world building, but the fundamental issue of financialization of person doesn’t get as much detail as I wanted.

Spoiler free summary

Justin Cord a billionaire in our day is dying of an untreatable cancer. He freezes himself and has his cryo-unit stashed in a mountain. 300 years later he’s found re-awakended and brought up to speed on the new world. This is how the reader learns about the world. The world has supersonic travel, off earth colonies, common cryogenics and nanotechnology. The government is strictly limited and the corporations, escpecially GCI which found Justin, run the world.

The unincorporated man refers to the fact that people at birth are assigned 100k shares of ownership in them. 5k go to the government, 20k are given to the parents and 25k are permanently assigned to the person. The other 50k shares can be freely sold by the person to help pay for schooling, loans etc. This means that by the time most people reach 18 they don’t own the majority of themselves.

Justin having been born before the system was created owns himself and is unincorporated. The driving conflict is man vs society. Justin finds the idea of people being partially owned akin to slavery but everyone in the society, including Justin’s friends, enemies, and love interest want him to incorporate.

It was unclear to me even after finishing the book if Justin was right or society was. Until the last two or three chapters I wasn’t even sure which side the book was on. Robert Hanson summed up the problems with the book when it was published in 2010.

But while this is the driving conflict through the book for me it was secondary to exploring the world and some of the technologies in it which wer much more interesting.

Interesting Concepts from the book (light spoilers)

Cryogenics and Health

  • Cryogenics is commonplace. As long as the brain survivies and is frozen quickly a person can easily be grown a new body. More generally aging and disease have been cured. This leads to a few interesting trends.

  • Dangerous jobs are considered desirable as they pay well and getting a new body will be covered either by the company or insurance. Dangerous sports are similarly common for people who own enough of themselves to not have to worry about the other shareholders in you suing.

  • Related body sculpting is expensive but relatively commonplance for short spans of time. A secondary character, after becoming rich, gives herself wings and a tail as part of Mardi Gras celebration (see below). Learning how to use them actually takes longer than growing them.

  • The first wave of people who froze themselves, the people who are frozen these days, were all killed by people who were jealous that they couldn’t afford it. Angry mobs stormed the all the cryogenic storage facilities. The protagonist foresaw this happening which is why he hid his in a mountain.

  • After society rebuilt itself after a minor apocalypse called the Grand Collapse (see below) the second wave of people froze themselves. When awoken you’re apparently impressionable and emotionally fragile due to the process and also the amount of time that’s passed. Enough so that a rejuvanionist, who is a counselor/tour guide of what changed, is part of the process. Because you are so fragile this person can manipulate you and so there are strong taboos againsts relationships between rejuvinationist and their clients. The love interest Leena is Justin’s rejuvinationist which is one of the early issues with them dating.

  • The world has ended aging and you can make yourself feel and look any age you like. This interacts with people being incorporated in that someone who won’t own a majority of themselves until 70 is considered to be doing well because they still have hundreds of years left. An amusing subplot is that when Justin is rejuvenated he acts like a teenager because he doesn’t conciously realize he physiologically is a teenager.

Wireheading and the Collapse of Society

  • This was the best written and thought out part of the book. Called VR in universe it’s essentially non-invasive wireheading with slowed down time. It runs a fantasy world that’s so good that addicts only exit due to hunger or go to the bathroom. However you can get programs that make you not even notice that. From the description in the book it felt similar to Better Than Life (BTL) computer programs in Shadowrun.

    People becoming addicted to this caused the collaps of society called the Grand Collapse. A large enough percentage of humanity got addicted to VR that society collapsed. 3/4s of the world died and fanatics took over some governments and had a small nuclear war.

  • The minarchist society that emerged from the Grand Collapse requires 7 year olds to experience VR for a few days, using programs where the children ignore hunger and soil themselves, to scar them into not wanting VR.

Even a minarchist society considers VR addiction so bad as to make coercive laws about it.

  • As part of entering into society Justin experiences VR. First the fun parts and then experiencing a happy family falling into VR addiction. It includes the world collapsing and hooking a baby up to VR. It’s the best written part of the book but upsetting as a parent

  • Obviously wireheading is one of the largest taboos in society. A minor character ends up being black mailed because they are a wirehead and would be imprisoned or ostracized if it came out

  • AI voice assistants are used heavily because they are not VR. Essentially a jacked up Siri or Alexa.

Minarchist And Incorporation

  • Alaska was the last remaining functioning government and after the Grand Collapse ends up rebuilding society as a minarchist state with corporations providing most of the services. Every person incorporates which is described as allowing people to invest in human capital. This is given why the government can be so small and most things can be handled by corporations.

  • The president is easier to kill than the Chairman/CEO of a major company. The job is also less important. It reminded me of Snow Crash where no body knew who the President of the United States was because they wer no longer important.

    I read the book without doing any research and later learned it was written in 2009 won the Prometheus award. My reading was that the authors seem to be fans of this type of system but instead of it being fan fiction it presents some of the problems with that type of state. Essentially a single corp (run by the antagonist) effectively acts as the evil government but with no checks or balances.

  • Incorporation is more that just what we have with Income Sharing Agreements (ISA) although shareholders will get a percentage of your income as dividends. Shareholders can influence where you live and what job you take and even who you marry. But it’s not clear what the size of their influence is on any of these. This was the major issue with the book in that it was not clear how bad it was for the majority of your stock to be owned. There were basically two debates in the last few chapters of the book about it, but that was all.

  • Mardi Gras’s cultural importance was one of the best bits of world building. With everyone being a corporation everyone has to be corporate and bland. Except during Mardi Gras. People aren’t judged so people take it as an opportunity to go wild. It’s nicely built up with all the characters (even the staid one) planning for the first half of the book what type of body mods they’ll do for it.

What happens during Mardi Gras stay in Mardi Gras.