The Corporation Wars: Insurgence
Ken MacLeod
Orbit, 320 pages
Review: Iain Maloney

Midway through Insurgence, the sequel to Dissidence and midpoint of the trilogy, Carlos the Terrorist finds himself in a hellish maze, his way lit by faint clumps of phosphorescent lichen. He knows the path in front of him will be difficult but that his goal, everything he’s fought for in his life – and virtual afterlife – is in this direction. It’s a computer generated simulation based on a thousand-year-old game popular when Carlos was alive, a circle within a circle within… well, it’s still not clear how deep it all goes. It may very well be turtles all the way down.

The maze is a perfect metaphor for the series. The Corporation Wars are a labyrinth of reality and unreality, lies, ruses, fictions and double-double crosses that would baffle even the smartest AI, where you have just enough information to keep you on track but are lost in a web of unanswered questions. Each chapter brings a new development that only redoubles the confusion.

Fortunately, we can trust the architect. Ken MacLeod is a master storyteller who makes all this plot-based writhing so enthralling that we forgive the confusion. The scenarios and characters introduced in Dissidence return with a few additions, most delightfully the freebot known as Baser, who is perfectly happy building a home for itself on a solitary rock until its peace is shattered by the arrival of some noisy, aggressive humans. The freebots are a wonderful creation, sympathetic and amusing characters coping with their recent sentience.

The reader is clearly encouraged to side with the freebots against both human/AI factions, the Acceleration and the Reaction. The former are ultra-Capitalists, the latter far, far, far-right conservatives intent on a white supremacist future for mankind. Because of the wit with which MacLeod writes, each character is entertaining and compelling, even when you find their politics abhorrent, but there are no humans we could really term ‘likeable’. The freebots however, well, them you can really identify with.

The centrepiece of the novel is the battle between a hardcore Acceleration faction and the Direction unit we were embedded with in Dissidence. Since nobody really knows which group really represents which faction and there are sleepers, traitors and those just plain fed up with the whole thing secreted in each team, it’s almost impossible to set out, without the aid of multi-dimensional graphics, what happens in Insurgence. There are dramatic set-piece battles, tense escapes from captivity, epic drunken parties in a computer generated fantasy world, as much casual sex as you could ask for and, thankfully, a good few discussions and debates that expand the backstory and fill in some of the gaps in our understanding.

Many issues that will concern us in 2017, such as the return of far-right ideology and the prospect of AI revolutionising the workplace and economy, are played out and examined from a number of angles, though always within the demands of the storyline and without ever straying into dry philosophising. A key character is the logical conclusion of the right wing internet troll, whose hate speech made him an icon back in the day and who now considers himself a sleeper agent – though it’s unclear if this is strategically valuable or just another piece of self-aggrandisement by an epic egotist. He balances on a razor’s edge of ideology and self-interest, admitting to himself that a lot of what he espoused was nothing more than rhetoric while a battle, inspired in part by that rhetoric, unfolds around him.

Unlike many middle parts in a trilogy, this isn’t merely a placeholder getting us from the beginning to the end. Rather it’s a tight, startling thriller that builds on part one and sets up part three without ever taking its eye off the prize: walking us through that dastardly labyrinth in breath-taking, humorous style.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 7.