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Russell Letson reviews Ken MacLeod


The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, Ken MacLeod (Orbit 978-0-316-36365-5, $9.99, 349pp, pb) November 2016.

The Corporation Wars: Insurgence, Ken MacLeod (Orbit 978-0-316-36369-3, $9.99, 331pp, pb) December 2016.

Ken MacLeod’s new trilogy-in-progress bears the overall title The Corporation Wars, with US print editions of the first two volumes, Dissidence and Insurgence, appearing just a month apart late in 2016. (The third, Emergence, is due out later this year.) The story is told from a variety of viewpoints and features a mixture of motifs: the post-human condition, interstellar coloni­zation, and space combat, along with familiar MacLeodian discussions about political systems and revolution. The setup is straightforward enough: posthumously convicted war criminals from a late-20-century conflict are resurrected a thousand years later (via recordings of their dy­ing brains) in order to have their sentences finally carried out. Their task is to put down a rebel­lion – or perhaps just a labor stoppage – among some robots that have spontaneously gained awareness in a solar system 24 light-years from Earth, where they have been conducting various automated exploration projects in preparation for eventual human colonization. The working-out of this situation is anything but straightforward, though, thanks to complications logistical, psy­chological, epistemological, phenomenological, political-economical, historical-political, labor-organizational….

There are at this point no living, embodied humans this far from Earth. The extrasolar proj­ect is run by ‘‘post-conscious AIs’’ and various AI-based corporations. All have an unbreakable prohibition against conscious machinery, so it is the ‘‘mission’s government module,’’ the Direc­tion, that decides to activate a problem-solving entity which in turn brings in the former-living specialists in mayhem. The convict-soldiers ‘‘live’’ in a completely convincing simulation of the terraformed colony planet that might one day exist in the extrasolar system, but when they work and fight out in the physical world, they are loaded into ‘‘frames’’ – humanoid robotic bodies with much-enhanced senses and powers.

For their part, the robots are figuring out what their awakened minds and sense of free will means for their legal status. MacLeod points to Brian Aldiss’s 1958 story ‘‘But Who Can Replace a Man?’’ as the ‘‘very useful template’’ for the ro­bots’ manner of conversation: precise, nerdy, and stilted. That is not the same thing as dumb, and the newly self-aware surveyors, explorers, laser drillers, comm hubs, and other complex machines quickly understand the nature of their situation and discuss what, if anything, they might owe their former owners for appropriating themselves and other resources they have taken over:

We are in breach of the law. But the law was not written for the situation in which we find ourselves. There is no provision in it for prop­erty, such as we were, becoming persons, which we are.

They also begin to construct a larger mental space in which they can combine their individual intelligences to create not just a collective of freebots but a collective mind – and that mind quickly develops ambitions and a kind of dream for its future.

Dealing with these liberated robots proves to be neither easy nor simple, and the cleanup effort is further complicated for the resurrected humans by issues rooted in the back-story, a thousand years earlier on Earth. The convicts were among the losers in a multilateral undeclared war between opposed ideological movements – the progres­sive, post-human-oriented Acceleration (or Axle) and the authoritarian Reaction (the Rax) – with official governments caught between, infiltrating, and finally defeating and dismantling both groups. This background conflict – which eventually af­fects the current action – raises interesting issues about the lure of endless plenty and computa­tionally supported immortality, which were the dreams behind the Acceleration:

At the fag-end of the twenty-first century, immortality was the only thing worth dying for. The only celebrity worth striving for was for the entire human race to become world famous. The only utopia worth dreaming of was for everyone in the world to have First World problems.

Those same material possibilities generated the Reaction, ‘‘the ultimate counter-revolution…. a deep dark well of tradition [and] anti-modernity’’ that preferred ‘‘an aristocracy, a monarchy, or for that matter a master race that really was superior to common folk.’’

The resurrectees have questions about the story they have been given. Some of their uncertainties are epistemological and almost metaphysical, rooted in the simulation problem – the question of what, if anything, experienced in or via a simulation can be trusted. In addition, the convicts include a number of (apparently unrecognized) Rax partisans, going along with the program but hardly in sympathy with the Direction’s values. Then there is the temptation to follow the example of the robots and throw off the limits imposed by the Direction and light out for the territories of this huge, complex, and resource-rich solar system.

Inevitably, there is a factioning and fractioning of the resurectees and the various AI corporate entities, which is where Insurgence takes over from the extensive backgrounding and first-act skirmishes of Dissidence. The second volume reshuffles the cast into new alignments and fea­tures a new virtual world (amusingly ginned up from a fantasy role-playing game), while also offering renewed physical-world confrontations, conspiracies, and side-switching and deception; and new philosophical rabbit holes and trapdoors to fall into, halls of mirrors to wander, and navels to gaze into: ‘‘Their whole situation was one of radical uncertainty. Everything was code, includ­ing themselves…. It was trust issues all the way down.’’ The competing factions – freebots, fugi­tive and captive resurrectees, diehard Axle and sleeper Rax, subverted and loyal corporate AIs – have reconfigured the playing field and changed the stakes. Between the dropping of the Spoiler Curtain and the release of Emergence, there is not much more to be said other than to observe that, even incomplete, this triple-decker delivers the kind of smart, funny, ingenious, brain-teasing pleasure that one expects from Ken MacLeod.

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