macleodk-cw1-dissidence-e1456521182872The Corporation Wars: Dissidence
Ken MacLeod,
Orbit, 329 pages
Essay by Duncan Lunan

I’ve had to read The Corporation Wars: Dissidence on screen as a PDF, which is not a method I enjoy. I’m sufficiently hooked on printed books that reading on screen takes away a lot of the pleasure, as far as I’m concerned. And yet, for this book’s remorselessly high-tech story-line, it has seemed strangely apt.

As it happens, at the same time I’ve been reading The Medusa Chronicles, by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds (Gollanz, 2015). Arthur C. Clarke’s 1971 novella A Meeting with Medusa introduced Howard Falcon, who is what Anne McCaffrey calls a ‘shell-person’, encased in a machine body after surviving a devastating airship crash, and foreseeing himself, in his growing estrangement from humanity, as a bridge to the machine civilisation to come. Baxter and Reynolds project Falcon’s life over the ‘troubled centuries’ which Clarke foresaw ahead, but although his failing human body is increasingly replaced by prostheses, Falcon’s experiences bring his human values to the fore, advocating them both to the Machines and to off-planet humanity, particularly the ruthlessly pragmatic culture which develops on Mars. (Men, Martians and Machines would be a more apt title, if Eric Frank Russell hadn’t bagged it long before.) As the Machines achieve sentience he teaches them self-respect and independence, but also concealment and duplicity – which comes back to bite us later, as it does with Hal in 2001. In his contribution to my Man and the Planets (1983), the late Chris Boyce thought that the supposed threat from sentient machines was a chimera: in his view, mind-machine interactions would grow ever closer rather than separate. At the end of The Medusa Chronicles it happens to Falcon and the machines which accompany him to the core of Jupiter, but at a higher level akin to spirituality, where they end up in a simulation, not in a computer but within the unknowably vast Jovian mind, and one which reflects and allows interaction with reality, allowing them to reach and explore the planets of other stars. There are echoes of Tibetan Buddhism in that: the Dalai Lama has said that the Berkleian strand in western philosophy, is the one which most appeals to him – that’s the one in which physical reality and our physical bodies have no separate existence and are all ideas within the greater mind of God.

Similarly, after the opening chapter of the novel Ken MacLeod’s characters are maintained within a simulation, set in another solar system. Its Earth-like world is being terraformed and the simulation represents its future, while in ‘real’ time robots are making it habitable and also harnessing the resources of the system’s other planets to sustain it, simultaneously achieving unplanned self-awareness like the robots of The Medusa Chronicles. Macleod’s characters are recurringly uploaded into the computers of war machines to deal with that, animating their machines even more closely than Falcon does his armoured, mobile carapace. But they’re all war machines, and there lies the big difference between the two novels: here, the ‘troubled centuries’ are far from over. The competing corporations at work in this remote system, too far from Earth for direct contact, have exported to it the underlying issues of the conflict on Earth between two major political movements: the Acceleration (shortened to the Axle) and the Reaction (the Rax) – super-capitalism as a transition phase towards the Mind-Machine Net that Chris Boyce envisaged, versus super-reactionary insistence on individual personalities and values, to the extent of restoring outmoded systems like monarchy. The corporations align with either and change sides at will, driven only by profit. In a maze of simulations and computer-generated avatars, the humans and robots caught up in the conflict have understandable confusions about what is real and what is not, the reversals in viewpoint are comparable to Richard Burton’s rapid role shifts in Where Eagles Dare, and at the end of it the major character signs off to think it all through again – for which I can’t blame him. But we’re left in little doubt that the final position is the true one, and it’s not all a simulation after all.

By further chance, April 2016 sees publication of George Monbiot’s How Did We Get into This Mess? (Verso), summarised in his article ‘Neoliberalism: the Ideology at the Root of All Our Problems’, The Guardian, 15th April 2016. Under pressure of a deadline I’m far from sure that I’ve grasped it all, but as I see it his main point is that state capitalism has been subverted by the belief that profit for individuals and corporations is the only good for society, and that competition is the only route to the efficiency that maximises profit. The 1930s term ‘Neoliberalism’ has fallen out of fashion and the ideology no longer has a name, known only by reference to its advocates ‘Reaganism’ and ‘Thatcherism’ as prime examples. The lack of effective opposition to it is due in part to the lack of clear terminology, and its persistence despite its failings, producing an increasingly dystopian society, is due to the fact that the only answers seem to involve reversion to older models which themselves have already been found wanting.

With some SF readers, that last point will strike a chord. The late John W. Campbell argued in Analog that there had been three stages in social evolution to date: the tribesman, the barbarian and the citizen. To the tribesman, ‘everything that isn’t compulsory is forbidden’, and he is no match for the barbarian who recognises no law but his own, helping himself to whatever the tribesman has painstakingly accumulated. When the state evolves, to the barbarian the citizen seems like just another kind of tribesman who can be easily defeated; but the citizens can organise, can form or hire specialists to defend them, and the barbarian horde is no match for a dedicated and trained army. But the state’s weakness is its insistence on conformity, and Campbell predicted that the next phase in social evolution would put new emphases on individual values, to the extent that it would look like selfishness or even a return to barbarism, which led him to coin the term ‘parabarb’ for the New Man to come. I’ve noticed over the years that it seems to be right-wing acquaintances who identify themselves with that most readily.

Between them, perhaps MacLeod and Campbell have supplied the terminology for which Monbiot believes we are groping. If Acceleration, or Axle if you will, stands for Neoliberalism, and Reaction (Rax) for the older systems, and the Thatcherites and Reaganites are parabarbs whose ethos has also been found wanting… what comes next? If Campbell is right, to its critics it will look like a reversion to the Welfare State or even to communism, but it will be better and stronger than either. We must live in hope of it.

This essay was first published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 4.