TWO OUT OF FIVE QUILLS
Damsah’s balls, this was the most overrated book I’ve read in some time!
[FULL DISCLOSURE: I couldn’t bring myself to finish this book. I made it about a third of the way through, but seeing that I care nothing for any of the main characters, wasn’t seeing a very thorough exploration of the main economic theme of interest, and was pained by the clumsy writing style, I decided to spend my time more wisely.]
In the future, everyone will be incorporated at birth, with 100,000 shares of personal stock issued. Parents get 20 percent and the government gets 5 percent. A person is free to sell off the rest to interested investors/speculators in order to secure things like loans, housing, or an education. The authors propose that most people will quickly end up owning less than a majority of their own stock due to the need to sell themselves off to get the things in life they need or want.
It isn’t made very clear just what happens when you are majority owned by someone else. It would be like indentured servitude except that a bunch of people could own shares in you. Perhaps they act like a corporate board? That seems unlikely for the average person; who would bother? Whether you have to pay dividends or hand over a direct percentage of your salary is also unclear: each is implied at different points in the narrative.
As for the story itself, it’s just window dressing to explore the setting. The protagonist is a smarmy, arrogant, dispassionate former billionaire who suspends himself for several hundred years and awakens in this pro-corporate future as the only person who has not been incorporated (because of course, in the future, the world, nay, the entire Solar System, will have a unified society). This makes him valuable. Of course, he’s brilliant and handsome and daring. And has the heart of the Grinch, as evidenced by his pride in inventing the first workerless factory, something the authors also celebrate.
Many of the POSITIVE reviews of this first novel will point out that the characters are static, the writing clumsy, the point of view confused, and the pacing erratic. The book reads like an early draft. I agree with all of that.
I’ll add that it’s disappointing to see the sophomoric humor ladled out in this book referred to as “clever.” And the main character, Justin Cord, is a Mary Sue of the type I typically associate with fanfic. I wonder which one of the Kollin brothers gets to dress up as Cord at Halloween?
Some of the negative reviews point out that the book’s cardboard characters spend a lot of their time demolishing straw men in the form of superficial objections to the future utopia based on the perfection of the free-market and the wisdom of handing everything over to corporations. Let me put it this way; I found some of L. Neil Smith’s libertarian screeds more convincing (and entertaining). One reviewer said that it “occasionally” comes across like a Glen Beck rant, while another mentioned shades of Ayn Rand. Glen Beck I buy; I think the philosophy that Rand bludgeoned readers with probably had more depth to it.
The basic concept is interesting, but you can get a better understanding of the ramifications of personal incorporation by simply reading the blurb on the dust jacket and having a conversation with some intelligent friends than you will from reading this novel. Even with ham-handed expository scenes galore, the authors manage to skip over inconsistencies in their setting and its premise. Corporate greed contributes to the Great Collapse via VR, so of course the answer is to give more power to the corporations. I don’t know about you, but the thought of having public stock in myself at the mercy of automated stock-trading software programs and the whims of day-traders does not suggest a stable financial foundation for the future. Your personal worth would fluctuate wildly over the course of a single day. And that’s the future you would have; nobody can check or regulate this practice now–in a future where corporations are seen as benevolent, demi-god entities, regulation will be a four-letter word.
If you were foolish enough to sell off a majority in yourself, good luck being able to afford to buy back your own shares if you became successful. The more successful you become, the higher your stock would be valued, making it more costly to buy. The only way to get around that would be to conceal your real worth long enough to buy your shares. With so much incentive to lie up (as a company) and down (as an individual) about your real value, stock trading becomes just as much of a game of moving shares with little relation to actual worth as it is today. You can say that the market would punish corporations that conceal the truth. In addition to suggesting that many companies in today’s Fortune 500 are hardly paragons of virtue, I’d add that it would be pretty simple for a future corporation to buy up a majority stake in any potential whistle-blower and ship them off to Mercury or the Oort Cloud.
Toned down from the extremes presented here, some of these ideas might have potential. Selling private shares in yourself below a certain minority limit might have some traction. It would be somewhat similar to finding a patron or establishing a small base of supporters to whom you would be beholden. Selling a majority stake of yourself on a public market? I sure as stock wouldn’t try it.
I found the book entertaining at times, often on the unintentional comedy scale in terms of some of the phrasing and the “gee-whiz” factor attached to tech that’s been speculated about more convincingly elsewhere for years, but it fails as both a thought-provoking novel of ideas AND as a story with engaging characters. I gave it a two because it’s a first novel and everybody has to start somewhere.