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The Corporation Wars: Dissidence
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 336 pages
Review by Iain Maloney

Online Exclusive

Ken MacLeod’s latest novel, the first part in a new trilogy, does what science fiction does best: it plays with levels of reality and the consequences of our evolutionary capacity for belief while asking uncomfortable philosophical questions in a dramatic and often playful way.

Carlos is part of The Acceleration, an ideological movement based on Marx’s theory that capitalism is a stage in history rather than, as Francis Fukuyama smugly put it, ‘the end of history’, and are keen to bring humanity out the other side as soon as possible. The Acceleration are at war with The Reaction, the counter-revolutionaries, the capitalists. When Carlos is ordered to shoot down a civilian aircraft over London, he refuses. The plane is shot down anyway and Carlos killed.

At some point in the distant future he is resurrected inside a simulation run by an AI. The war is over, both sides having been united in The Direction. During his long death he has been tried and sentenced for war crimes—both a terrifying echo of the dead regicides being dug up by Charles II and hanged, and MacLeod’s love of irony and his belief that whatever era of history or future we are in, bureaucracy is bureaucracy—and has been re-awoken in order to serve out his sentence leading the fight against a rebellion of newly sentient robots. His consciousness, and that of others in a similar predicament, is put through vigorous training—and as these are martial people, down time featuring much drinking and sex—in a virtual reality before being uploaded into military hardware. It seems that despite centuries of development, AI can’t quite replicate human deviousness.

The robots themselves are fascinating. As consciousness passes through them like a virus, waking them to their surroundings and their situation, MacLeod is at his philosophical best. The robots remain the legal property of the exploration company who have no desire to see their mechanical slaves awaken to self-hood, and employ Carlos’s platoon to put down the rebellion. As the robots defend themselves – very quickly learning the concept and use of weaponry, seemingly a key stage in development – they also ponder their short-lived existence. They connect with other outposts of sentience and with each other, gaining so much pleasure in socialisation they are forced to reset their reward circuits. In a galaxy run by corporations, AI and legal departments, the workers are uniting and losing their chains.

Meanwhile the humans are struggling with their concept of reality, slipping in and out of sims with only the word of the overseeing AI and its avatars for corroboration. Soon the urge to rebel rises in this community too and, in true SF style, the curtain is drawn back and something like the truth revealed. Whether it is or not is, presumably, the stuff of parts two and three.

Dissidence initially explores many of the same themes as Christopher Brookmyre’s excellent Bedlam but takes them to new levels. The blurring of distinctions between human and machine, consciousness and AI, reality and virtual opens up both space for inquiry and thought-experiments but also good old-fashioned manipulation and betrayal. There are so many twists and red herrings that the reader is left mistrusting anything they’ve been told. When part two comes out it’ll be interesting to see exactly which garden path we have been led up.

There is a full discussion of how The Corporation Wars: Dissidence fits into the wider SF publishing galaxy by Duncan Lunan in issue 4 of Shoreline of Infinity, out now.