An entire trilogy published in less than eighteen months, given the complexity of The Corporation Wars and the shifting alliances and allegiances of the parties involved it is perhaps fortunate that Ken MacLeod has been so efficient and diligent in maintaining a swift schedule with Dissidence, Insurgence and now this final volume.
After two novels of intensifying setup, a tangled backstory of historic political rivalries, subterfuge, plotting, betrayal and escalating technological achievement accreting towards the pinnacle of singularity even as others would tear that mountain down with their bare hands, in open conflict approaches the moment of Emergence.
Asteroid SH-119 is besieged, the resurrected sleeper agents of the Reaction downloaded into mechanical avatars and hunting down the mining automatons who toil within the tunnels to destroy those which have achieved self-awareness, the Freebots.
Former Acceleration agent Carlos has been shaken by the events of the previous book, a betrayal more shocking to him even than his own death centuries before; that at least had been highly likely in the circumstances of the Last World War, but now he finds himself obliged to side with the Freebots against his former employers, an alliance he finds surprisingly conducive once entered into.
Elsewhere in the system, a module crash-landed on the supposedly interdicted superhabitable planet designated SH-0 has broken that prohibition and the unexpected arrivals find themselves in an enviable position to make first exploration and use of the resources, but also the unenviable position of being ill-equipped pioneers in a wholly unexplored world of unknown hazards and a target for the other factions within the system unwilling to grant their rivals any advantage.
What was conceived as a return to his works of distant future fiction has become as relevant as MacLeod’s other recent strand of urban techno thrillers such as The Execution Channel and The Night Sessions in that what might have once seemed unbelievable – a network of fascist agents covertly operating within the established military political complex – is now what we call “the news.”
That fact is not lost on MacLeod as he concludes his trilogy with Reactionary leader Dunt’s flippant reference to the naivety of the opposing forces as “special snowflakes” before he posits that “democracy, or any thinking from it, was fundamentally at odds with reality,” but nor is the moral high ground of those of a more balanced viewpoint unassailable with a catalogue of failings and an ocean of refugee blood still staining their own recreated hands.
It’s tough all over: Carlos fears there may be further sleeper agents in his ranks while Dunt is aware that the demonstrated fervour of his troops to the radical cause may lead them to try to overthrow him, and the Freebots are cognisant that as an upstart species whose progenitors were driven to exile or extinction their mere presence is a threat to both sides.
Their place in this corner of a distant system only one tiny fragment of a vastly more expansive web of supply chains and economic and political pressures governed by both corporate laws and those of physics, the latter more inviolable but less complicated and pernicious, the battle conducted across multiple states, virtual, physical, ideological, economic and legal, a power shift in any realm echoing into the others.
The heavy virtual presence of the first two volumes given less emphasis in the end game as the real-world stakes are raised for those who are susceptible to death, no saved backups ready to be deployed, a seemingly insignificant goal such as obtaining corporate status and recognition brings with it disproportionate benefits, business entities perceived as more important than people – by other businesses at least.
For those familiar with the preceding volumes it is already a complex novel; for those stepping into the rushing, turbulent water at this late stage it is perhaps best to just hold on and go with the flow but they will be carried along just the same and it will quickly become broadly apparent which faction to cheer for even if the detail remains blurry.
In many ways a good novel can itself be regarded as a simulation for the characters involved as much as the more elaborate representations depicted within and MacLeod exercises his privilege as architect and coder-in-chief to alter the circumstances in the final stages, specifically the rate it runs at, leaping forward to a projected end state which may not be as final as suggested; well, nothing ever is when factors as unpredictable as former humans are involved, but for the reader at least the conclusion is eminently satisfactory.