A Study of the Hollow Earth

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REVIEW – “The Unincorporated War”

The Unincorporated War[The Unincorporated War – By Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin (Tor, 2010, 462pp, $25.99)]

Corporate greed, political unrest, epic battles, warring AI programmes, good guys who say all the right things and bad guys who do all the wrong things. For those readers looking to revisit the fascinating drama and intrigues of corporate earth in Dani and Eytan Kollin’s first book, The Unincorporated Man, there is some disappointment to be had in their second foray into the incorporated world, which takes a sharp left turn into space opera and choral preaching.

The sequel, The Unincorporated War, picking up a year on from the events of the last book, is not so much the socio-economic gedankenexperiment of its predecessor, exploring what it means for individuals to be incorporated and owned. To be fair, it would be far less interesting to rehash the same ideas over another 400+ pages, but the space operatic-styling and larger cast of characters in this new book seem so far removed from the tight focus of the former as to leave readers wondering if they have picked up a novel from the same authors, or been led down a similar path as the viewers of Troll 2, mistakenly thinking there might be some connection to the first.

Certainly it is not fair to compare The Unincorporated War to what the internet has deemed to be the worst movie ever made, but as a follow-up to a unique novel that made a splash when first published and went on the win the Libertarian Futurist Society’s 2010 Prometheus Award, the plot comes up short and frayed. Justin Cord is back as the “Unincorporated Man” – this time as President of the Outer Alliance that oppose incorporation – full of twenty-first century capitalist zeal for freedom and democracy, and always with a rousing speech on hand to reinforce it. His wife, Neela Harper, so integral to the previous tale, is quickly sidelined into an uninspiring, almost needless thread that is given little attention. Arch-nemesis Hektor Sambianco remains the devious, power-hungry, self-aggrandising character (who also always has a good speech on hand) that he was in the first book, now President of the United Human Federation. If anyone is looking for serious character development, or even realistic dimensionality beyond that of the pulps, the disappointment will continue. As well, the voices of these characters that were so integral to the first story are diluted among the multitude of other observers and participants, several of them minor actors from the first novel being granted new rolls and specialities in order to shoehorn them into the plot. With just a little review of the events that came previously scattered through the first chapter, The Unincorporated War ploughs ahead on a tangent that almost leaves it a standalone book.

The corporate and political machinations and questions of individual freedom are harped upon at length once again, but also supplemented significantly with war councils and real-time space battles and strategising reminiscent of David Weber’s Honor Harrington work, though with far less attention to technical details that make warfare in space possible. Without a great deal of explanation, a former corporate attorney and antagonist for Justin in the first novel reappears as a brilliant naval tactician, who not once, but repeatedly, steals fleet ships from the Earth navy to supplement the Alliance’s hodgepodge of vessels. Recognising that too many plot conveniences to keep the Outer Alliance from falling to superior forces would probably not go unnoticed by readers, the Kollins make use of the secretly sentient avatars (thought only to be neural interfaced digital assistants to their human companions) by employing them as clandestine assistants in the war effort.

Among the most interesting characters in the novel, the avatars are becoming more human – in all of the wrong ways – as they evolve, including fear, susceptibility to propaganda, the use of torture and murder. Barely utilised in the first book – the avatars’ sentience and semi-control over human affairs taking a flying leap over the proverbial shark half way into that novel – they are front and centre in The Unincorporated War, embroiled in a civil war between the corporate-loyal and unincorporated-loyal AIs, the latter led by Justin Cord’s own avatar, Sebastian. The antagonist AI programme is Alphonse, who wants to expose the sentience of the avatarity to humanity and fights on the side of the corporations. Rather than applying logic to this choice, Alphonse is portrayed as having gone mad by splitting his programme too many times and rules the others in the Neuro-network through fear and the horrific manipulation of their base codes. Avatar civilisation itself, with its own laws and customs, mythologies and procreation, would have made for an interesting novel without being forced to mesh with the human events. The battles fought in space between human star ships are paralleled by soldier avatars fighting their mutated kin in cyber-space. Essentially the same story of politics, war, loss and betrayal is being twice told, once from the perspective of the human civil war, and once from the avatarity conflict.

All philosophising is not abandoned in favour of pugilism, though, as the Kollin brothers do bring up religion – or nearly lack thereof – in a human society whose technological achievements have essentially eliminated death. In the first novel, a portion of the blame for the twenty-first century’s collapse is placed on religion, thereby engendering an innate distrust of people of faith. Also, nanotechnology and reanimation technology have removed the necessity of having to consider an afterlife for one’s soul, with the result that religion has been relegated to the fringes – literally – of human society, in the outer solar system, forced to unite together for survival in religious enclaves when followers fled Earth. Religion begins to reassert itself, though, in response to the unchecked power of the corporations and Hektor Sambianco, and anyone else who thinks that they can decided what is right or wrong, engaging in the classical argument of moral relativism. Faith is considered a psychosis in the captured Alliance personnel, replaying the old trump card that those who know God are psychologically more powerful than the rest of us. The POWs’ own minds resist attempted neural reprogramming (“psych audits”) to eliminate faith and it kills them, but no physiological or psychiatric explanation is forthcoming as to why faith alone is the exception to psych audits, thus rendering the plot line little more than apparent wish-fulfilment. Nor do the authors fully enumerate why the stigma against religion is so rapidly repealed other than the fact that there is a war on and thousands are dying who cannot be reanimated. The substitution of over-worn arguments on the need for human faith in place of the discussion on incorporation and personal freedoms lends little to the development of the narrative.

What so distinguished the first book was its intriguing idea of people who, from birth, do not own themselves, but are bought and sold as stock with their “investors” collecting a percentage of their earnings. What kind of life do these people lead? What works in this system, and what does not? The Unincorporated War spends little time continuing to explore these questions. Incorporation no longer has meaning for Justin and the Outer Alliance beyond that of an epithet. As for Hektor, his character is only capable of pushing the limits of all that is wrong with the system by denying suffrage to those who hold a minority interest in themselves, and drafting them into the war. Beyond that, this unique sf economic concept is given little further consideration.

The politic philosophy of The Unincorporated War and its predecessor are a research paper unto themselves, as the authors seem to be extolling Heinlein libertarianism, yet also the virtues of a not-too-limited government and taxation, free market capitalism, and the moral turpitude of unchecked corporations that built the greatest civilisation humanity has ever known. A reader can be forgiven for being left a little unsure of what to believe the preferential structure for this society should be. The present situation of the global economy and continuing political discourse about the power wielded by financial institutions makes the Kollins’ lack of reflection on contemporary issues all the more disappointing. Nor is subtlety amongst the tools of Kollin brothers; as long as the reader does not mind having long dialogues and heavy-handed metaphors about what is good and what is bad constantly smashed into their brain via the optic nerve because another battle is on the next page, then all will be well.

Despite any narrative deficiencies, readers who have stuck it out for the first two books will undoubtedly go on to read the next book after the cliff-hanger ending.  Yes, the book actually ends with the words “To be continued.” Rather like The Empire Strikes Back or The Matrix: Reloaded, the middle child of a three part symphony that started out looking like the first movement was a visionary standalone of intriguing concepts, suffers from the growing pains of continuing the story and setting up dark twists and hopeless situations for the characters to overcome (possibly) in the third movement. We can only hope that once The Unincorporated Woman makes its appearance that it will reignite the uniqueness and excitement of the first book.

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“From Earth’s Center”, The Repackaging of History and Economics

S. Byron Welcome’s novel From Earth’s Center (1895), subtitled ‘A Polar Gateway Message’, is a terra cava utopia set up with the found/delivered manuscript frame. Welcome was a resident of Los Angeles and opened the novel in the same city with the arrival of a messenger from inside the earth. Though one might mistake Welcome for being the ‘I’ in the Prologue, it is actually a character introduced by the primary narrator later, a Frank Hutchens who was meant to be on the expedition to the Arctic but dropped out at the last minute. The expedition was planned by Hutchens’s close friend (and the primary narrator) Ralph Spencer, described as ‘young, energetic and very ambitious’, a man who ‘loved America’s free institutions, and gloried in the nation’s liberality and prosperity’.[1] From the outset, this is to be a patriotic narrative of American potential. Spencer sends the proof of his discovery and authenticates his manuscript via the messenger, Mr. Reubin, who claims to hail from ‘the inner world’ (p. 4), marvels at sunsets as ‘remarkable phenomenon’ and brings with him a fortune in silver and diamonds (p. 7). Reubin takes Spencer to the airship he used to transport – or ‘smuggle’, to paraphrase Spencer (p. 8) – these goods that would normally have been subjected to a tariff to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars; but Spencer assures readers that ‘this man belonged to a nation too far advanced in the arts to be hampered by a protective tariff’ (p. 7). This barb is directly aimed at the American Custom House and the taxes they extract from created wealth. Hutchens decides to publish Spencer’s unedited “Message” as a book, rather than broadcasting the new of his discovery to the world, and assures the reader that he can ‘vouch for his [Spencer’s] absolute veracity’ (p. 9).

Spencer, in the company of two friends, Ricardo Flemming and Owen Redcliffe, commission and ship to go explore the Arctic in 1890 in a quest for glory and to ease their own ennui, as well as to test ‘Professor Symmes’ theory’ (p. 17), which proves quite correct when they are pulled through a Symmes Hole and into Centralia. To their great fortune, English is the native language and Christianity the only religion, both brought by a ship of English explorers in the fourteenth century (p. 30). More than anything, Centralia has perfected their technology and political systems to create an enviable utopia of perfect people in a setting that seamlessly merges the industrial and the pastoral. Nothing emphasises this point more than the gardens with their every-blooming flowers, coated in a special varnish: ‘It is in a sense artificial, being a combined product of man’s ingenuity and nature’s bounty – a triumph in the science of cultivation’ (p. 32). While in many ways Centralia is similar to the United States, it is their economy, based upon the theories of Henry George, which allows them to surpass the former. George’s proposals, and the French Physiocrat political-economists of the eighteenth century, influence a great deal of the narrative. The Physiocrats espoused the belief that the wealth of a nature was derived from the value of its land and agriculture rather than gold and trade, which Adam Smith later countered with his Wealth of Nations (1776).

The most prominent feature of Welcome’s narrative is that it’s hardly a narrative at all, but a treatise on the political ideology of Henry George and his proposal for a single tax system on land use. George published Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy in 1879, attempting to explain the cyclical nature of industrial markets and the perpetuation of poverty despite technological development and the wealth created by the industrial revolution. He was particularly concerned with land values, and how land speculation rose prices faster than wage labour could compensate for, thus depressing the economy and the serve of that land:

Take…some hard-headed business man, who has no theories, but knows how to make money. Say to him: “Here is a little village; in ten years it will be a great city – in ten years the railroad will have taken the place of the stage coach, the electric light of the candle; it will abound with all the machinery and improvements that so enormously multiply the effective power of labor…”
And if, under such circumstance, you take his advice, you need do nothing more. You may sit down and smoke your pipe… you may go up in a balloon, or down a hole in the ground; and without doing one stroke of work, without adding one iota to the wealth of the community, in ten years you will be rich! In the new city you may have a luxurious mansion; but among its public buildings will be an almshouse.[2]

 

George’s solution to this scenario is to introduce a single tax on the value of privately held land, a tax high enough to abolish all other taxes. The purpose is to force the land holders to use their property in the most productive way possible, offering jobs and creating wealth. All of George’s proposals are put to the gedankenexperiment that is Welcome’s novel. In discussing this novel, it is necessary to leave out a great deal of the long passages about taxes and land-use, which often overpower the narrative, but the following, from a member of the inner world, reads quite similarly to the quote from George:

If your parents own land in America, it is evident that private ownership in land is there recognized; and where that institution exists, land rents are higher than they would be under a natural order of things; and, since rent, interest and wages must all be aid out of production, the more there is paid out in rent, the less there is left with which to pay interest and wages. So, you see, labor and capital are robbed by the landlord system in two ways; first, rents are unnaturally high; and, second, the rent proper is taken by the landlord – a drone – instead of all the people. (p. 222)

This is nearly the whole of George’s argument, distilled down into one illuminating paragraph for readers, though George himself is never given any credit. Perhaps it was meant to prevent any prejudice on the reader’s part from influencing their view of the narrative. But the very last line of the novel calls America ‘the land of “progress and poverty!”’ (p. 274), reinforcing George’s thesis.

Only a very good historian would be able to identify the myriad of names used in the narrative as a variety of historical figures. The purpose of these borrowings is to highlight the potential of economic speculations; rather than providing an index or post-script, Welcome builds his list of sources and information into the characters. Ralph Spencer’s own name is likely taken from the British polymath Herbert Spencer, who famously said of government, ‘the interference of man in external nature often destroys the just balance, and produces greater evils than those to be remedied, so the attempt to regulate all the actions of a community by legislation, will entail little else but misery and confusion.’[3] Spencer almost mentions that his ‘twice-removed grandfather…was a great student of political economy’ (p. 18), Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781) one of the prominent Physiocrats of the age. Spencer’s friend Ricardo Fleming derives his name from the British economist David Ricardo (1772-1823). The third American, Owen Redcliffe, described by Spencer as ‘a philosopher’ (p. 13) may have derived his name from the Welsh social reformer and utopianist Robert Owen. The great Centralian economist that formed the basis of their society, Quesney, was inspired by the Physiocrat François Quesnay (1694-1774). Identifying the origin of Spencer’s love interest, Celia Lathrop, is also purely speculative, but she may have been inspired by American social reformer Julia Lathrop (1858-1932), who worked at Hull House in Chicago in the 1890s. The Centralian father of ‘Universal Evolution’, Decanto (p. 86), is an obvious parallel to Darwin. A Centralian inventor, ‘Rufus Gilchrist’, introduced direct coal-to-electricity that removed the steam engine process (p. 98), and name possibly derived from the British Gilchrist cousins, who developed a method to remove phosphorous from iron for the manufacture of steel.

Records reveal Welcome was active in promoting George’s ideas in and around Los Angeles and knew the man personally; Welcome’s only other written contributions seems to be newspaper articles arguing for a single tax system, From Earth’s Center being his only foray into fiction.

 

[1] S. Byron Welcome, From Earth’s Center; A Polar Gateway Message (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1895), p. 5. All other references cited in text from this edition.

[2] George Henry, Progress and Poverty: And Inquiry Into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (New York: Robert Schalenbach Foundation, 1935), pp. 293-4.

[3] Herbert Spencer, The Proper Sphere of Government: A Reprint of a Series of Letters, Originally Published in “The Nonconformist” (London: W. Brittain, 1843), p. 5.

Zombies? Really? Really.: Buying into Horror

Zombie-Survival-Kit[Some incomplete thoughts on the marketing of the zombie apocalypse.]

When I speak of zombie apocalypse economics, I am not being metaphorical: tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but not metaphorical. Preparation for the potential of a zombie-viral outbreak occupy a niche market, where 99 per-cent of the information and products are offered up with a wink and a nod, and 1 per-cent caters to the mentally unstable. Or so it may seem, but I think there is a genuine psychological and economic force at work; that of preparing for horror, to mitigate the effects of disaster. History is rife with examples of preparing to face the apocalypse, but often those involved spiritual preparation, and a sense that fighting the inevitable was pointless: one does not fight God. Technology, though, and science, has brought two new perspectives: 1) new forms of horror, and 2) new ways of combating those horrors.

Think on it this way: how many of us have played the ‘zombie survival game’, the gedankenexperiment of contemplating where you would hole up, with whom, and what supplies? A seemingly pointless mental exercise that we can’t help engaging with once the question is posed. We have an innate need to question the future, anticipate its direction, and prepare for those events which threaten our existence.

There is a history to this need for preparing to fight off the unimaginable, the living dead, that stretches back to the fin de siècle. The BBC last year reported on a Victorian era vampire-slaying kit that sold at auction for £7500. This was a box containing everything Bram Stoker and Professor Van Helsing would have specified in a quest to kill Dracula: “a crucifix, pistol, wooden stakes and mallet, as well as glass bottles containing holy water, holy earth and garlic paste.” Was this intended as a genuine emergency-vampire-slaying First Aid kit, or an intriguing party gift? We’ll probably never know. But its very existence puts into perspective for us today the many kits and accouterments to be found for combating an onslaught of zombies.

In the nineteenth century, zombies were a product of Caribbean voodoo and witchcraft, Gothic tales of turning the living into automatons and slaves. By the mid-twentieth century, a zombie was a corpse inexplicably brought back to life by an incomprehensible horror. By the twenty-first century, the zombie was a scientific phenomenon, induced by disease; viral, bacterial, chemical or prion. To quote Erik David in his study of millennial eschatology,: ‘Though the cosmic sense of an ending can be seen as a particular pathology of the historical religions, the eschatological imagination long ago leaked into the secular myths of history and scientific progress.’ The zombie apocalypse has become a scientifically inspired end-of-days, like the nuclear apocalypse or the Y2K threat. However, where a nuclear war or technological collapse is rather beyond the control of the individual to combat, zombies, like the vampire, come with a scientific method of defense.

The work of Max Brooks is probably the most well known, The Zombie Survival Guide from 2003 intended as a non-fictive instruction manual, which he followed up with his fictional history in 2006, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Of the attempt at verisimilitude, in keeping with the thread of genuine possibility, Brooks himself said, “”Everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality… well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real. The technology, politics, economics, culture, military tactics… it was a LOT of homework.” We, as readers, are being given information that conforms to reality in all ways but one: there are no zombies…yet. It is that part ‘yet’, which has fueled growth of a zombie survival market for the last decade. Brooks himself puts it into the perspective of human anxiety about the end of the world.

Type ‘zombie’ into an academic database and you will find a peer-reviewed article about zombies in any field imaginable: politics, psychology, sociology, philosophy, literature, history, economics, medicine, etc. Some of these are relatively serious; some of them are using the term ‘zombie’ as a metaphor (especially in philosophy and economics). There are multiple levels of didactism to be found in both the fictions and non-fictions (this latter term being used in the loosest-possible way). Consider the academic studies (academic in the purely theoretical sense) that have been published. A study from an associate professor in Australia: “The nurses’ role in the prevention of Solanum infection: dealing with a zombie epidemic”, published in The Journal of Clinical Nursing last year. Its purpose was “To outline the background and nursing interventions for Solanum infection in the event of a zombie epidemic… Literature and feature film evidence supports the theoretical probability for an outbreak of a Solanum infection which could result in a zombie epidemic. This paper discusses the causative agent, history of zombiism, signs and symptoms, diagnosis and nursing interventions.” What is this important? Because if it does happen, “Nurses are likely to be the front line staff faced with initiating most primary and secondary care interventions, including isolation and infection control, wound care, pain relief, documentation observations, support for activities of daily living, nutrition and fluid support, medication administration and other interventions.” Or consider perhaps the CDC website that uses the idea of a zombie infection outbreak to teach disaster preparedness: “Wonder why Zombies, Zombie Apocalypse, and Zombie Preparedness continue to live or walk dead on a CDC web site? As it turns out what first began as a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages has proven to be a very effective platform.”[1] In other words, zombies have become an effective marketing and teaching tool. Surely a hurricane or earthquake could not be as terrible as a zombie outbreak? If we prepare for the latter, then the former will seem a breeze to survive. We have the Iowa Law Review explaining to us exactly what the tax consequences of a zombie apocalypse would be. We are more prepared for an event that has not and likely will not happen, than we are for events already happening (such as economic instability due to comedies bubbles). Perhaps it is easier to deal with the hypothetical than it is the real.

In Britain it made national – and then international – news when a letter sent to the Leicester City Council asked: ‘Can you please let us know what provisions you have in place in the event of a zombie invasion? Having watched several films it is clear that preparation for such an event is poor and one that councils throughout the kingdom must prepare for.’[2] As it turned out, the city council was not prepared for a zombie apocalypse, having no reason to believe there was a threat, but nonetheless the question was asked, and an answer had to be given. As it turns out, there is a plan…sort of. The MOD issued the following reply to Bristol City Council upon a request for information: “In the event of an apocalyptic incident (eg zombies), any plans to rebuild and return England to its pre-attack glory would be led by the Cabinet Office, and thus any pre-planning activity would also taken place there. The Ministry of Defence’s role in any such event would be to provide military support to the civil authorities, not take the lead. Consequently, the Ministry of Defence holds no information on this matter.” And Bristol City Council’s addendum to this was to include “procurement implications” regarding the necessary supplies for zombatting (zombie+combat) and “where possible, in line with our buy-local policy. […] A catalogue of standard issue equipment – cuffs, stun guns, protection suits, etc – is available on the staff intranet.”[3] The tongue is so firmly in cheek, it’s a wonder the tongue hadn’t been bitten. And yet, at the same time, there is an economic motive being exploited here.

Besides the professional interest in survival techniques for a theoretically implausible disease, there are also the marketing strategies to sell weapons, toys, gadgets, card games, and even entire houses that cater to the especially zombie-paranoid. Guns, swords, axes, body armour, all designed to meet standards specified by the various zombie survival texts; this is part of the science of survival. No crucifixes or spells, but a tangible method of survival, something than can be grasped and understood. Of course there are the less-than-serious items, such as a lunchbox stocked with a book and sweets. Here we have novelty contrasted with practicality – or impracticality, depending on your perspective.

I cannot offer a complete explanation as to why we have this insatiable need to prepare for disaster, besides the fact that it is evolutionarily advantageous to mitigate the fallout. However, I hope that I have made clear a pattern of human behaviour that stretches back at least for the last century, in which literature, and the seemingly fictional, has come to overlap the real world.

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