29 November 2016

Review: The Corporation Wars - Insurgence

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/
The Corporation Wars: Insurgence
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 1 December 2016
HB, 309pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book. (Full disclosure: I also have a signed copy on order...)

Insurgence is the second volume in a science fiction trilogy, with Dissidence published in May and Emergence due next year. It kicks off  pretty much where Emergence finished, in the middle of a space battle between reanimated human-piloted mechanoids and newly self-conscious robots. In fact there isn't really a gap, you might just as well call this a single book in three parts as a trilogy.

It's hundreds of years in the future. Humanity has been shaped by a war between the forces of progress - the Accelaration, aka The Axle - and those of reaction, the Rax. After these insurgents have fought each other to a standstill, the authorities harvested the minds of the Axle combatants from their bodies and sentence them to perpetual death. Now, finally, there's a chance for salvation. Carlos 'the Terrorist' and his Axle comrades have been revived, retrained and re-embodied in fighting mechanical suits to meet the threat of those newly emergent robots.

Unfortunately, some Rax have also been preserved...

This is classic hard SF, set in a distant star system where rival corporations (all of them AIs) are trying to claim habitable territory for humanity. The robot uprising and Rax infiltration complicate matters, as do the cloudy motives of Earth's ultimate authority, the Direction (also an AI). In fact, there are wheels within wheels within wheels here, delicate layers of organisational, personal and ideological motives, directed and constrained by the limits of resources, legal freedom and above all, physics (gotta be careful with that reaction mass!) MacLeod provides a couple of pages of summary to bring the reader up to speed on events of the first book, but after that we're into a murky world where - as Carlos finds - nobody is to be trusted.

It's all done, though, as in the most satisfying thrillers, in a completely convincing way - which is some achievement given that most of our characters live (when not fighting robots) in one of two simulated worlds: either a pleasure planet or a pseudo medieval gameworld complete with dungeons and boggarts. Any distinctions between the different levels of 'reality' are soon lost as the book moves between viewpoints and Carlos, his comrade Taransay, Newton the individualistic Rax agent and Beauregard, a former Military Intelligence man who seized control of one of the sims at the end of the last book will pilot their way through the myriad complexities posed both by physical conflict with the larger body of reawakened Rax cadres and the suspicions, hostilities and misunderstandings sown between them.

We see less of the robots in this volume, which is perhaps a shame, because for me their dry wit is one of the best aspects of these books. MacLeod very cleverly leaves them robot enough to be alien, human enough to be sympathetic in their revolt against what is basically slavery. (Remember, none of the human factions show any pity to the robots, not even the 'progressive' Axle. They may be included in tactical alliances but these alliances - as between the human factions themselves - are simply following Machiavelli's advice, to combine against your strongest enemy then turn on your allies.) As the pretty ancient factions of Rax and Axle play out their slightly absurd, centuries out of date conflict, there is a much more current issue of justice at stake. One of the great things about MacLeod's writing is always this ethical, humanistic dimension to SF. Yes, it's ROBOTS! And LASERS! And BANGS! But also an intricately constructed and deeply politically aware story of the interplay between property, personhood and oppression and this gives the story real bite.

There's also some madcap invention, from a user interface based on painting and drawing, to an Old Man of the Mountains who seems to have developed the ability to, unwittingly, control one of the sims, to an all too plausible conjecture as to how robot consciousness could arise.

I suspect that even as we think we know what's going on, there may be a hidden hand at work somewhere. How much of what's happened might, actually, have been planned - or at least foreseen. And by who? Something reminds me of Asimov's Second Foundation - perhaps appropriately in what is also known as the Second Law Trilogy.

There are certainly a number of other shoutouts to SF classics (a reference to The Songs of Distant Earth, the remark than any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology, and more). This is a book, like the very best SF, in dialogue with the genre's past, with speculation about what robots might and might not be allowed to do, with plans for directing future civilizations. And as in many of those tales the real fun arises when things go wrong and the unforeseen happens. That's certainly where we get to by the end of the book when things are again left very much up in the air. I can't wait for the final part.

(Before I end: I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but I just want to point out what gorgeous little hardbacks these are. Just take a moment to admire the design by Bekki Guyatt.)

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