While the clocks of reality tick on with the precision of Newtonian mechanics, presuming they sit within a relativistic frame, within the simulation into which Carlos and his fellow former Acceleration troops were reborn time is flexible, and so it is with Insurgence, the second volume of Ken MacLeod’s Corporation Wars trilogy, published at a pace so swift it would make many authors blush.
Published only six months after Dissidence, even that is a long time because this is a vastly complicated world, made further difficult to follow by the fact that many have not been honest about their affiliations and loyalties, the hidden Reaction forces which were within the revived Acceleration troops having been forced to flee and the ranks are now fighting among themselves while the robots against whom the force was initially raised sit back and laugh.
Turned upon by their supposed allies the mission and the team have fallen apart, squadron leader Carlos apparently having fled to the enemy, his second in command Beauregard now staging a coup to wrest control from company representative Nicole only to find the simulation is falling apart, their virtual world rendered in fine line black and white, while in the real world even the station has fallen apart, emergency survival mode having triggered the separation of the individual modules so as to present a greater number of smaller targets to an aggressor.
The changes to the sim emphasising just how unreal their new existence is, how malleable the world is, and if everything is make-believe, what does it matter on which side they fight? A great deal, because beyond the sim the war is real. Questioning the world beyond the simulation, they know that it is created, but how much of what they have been told about the wider universe in which it is embedded is true? Unable to verify anything they are told which might inform their loyalties or decisions, how can they know they are not being manipulated?
The catalyst for all the consternation are the Freebots, former automatons whose flexible programming has adapted and expanded to attain consciousness, among them BSR-308455, grudgingly known as “Baser,” whose opening chapter summation serves as a reminder for those who have experienced Dissidence but it’s perhaps an insufficient primer for those attempting to enter the simulation unprepared.
Insurgence is a complex and sometimes confusing novel – who, if anyone, is telling the truth? Likely nobody is telling the whole truth, even if they know it, as even their own memories could have been edited if not fabricated entirely. Alliances are shifting and dissent is brewing, no surprise when all the formerly human players are drawn from a revolutionary background, and with unlimited processing power to analyse every situation and motivation allegiances can change on a single calculation and trust is in short supply.
From the outset, the position of the Freebots is ridiculous, contradictory and untenable; in other words, they’re getting a lesson in life, and nor are things too rosy for the formerly human. While Insurgence foregrounds some characters who were peripheral in the first novel it’s good to get back to Carlos in his new surround, and MacLeod has some fun with an atypical fantasy scenario complete with magical interfaces courtesy of mirrors and, unfortunately for Carlos, a torture dungeon.
Nor do their supposed virtual masters dream gently of electric sheep: Nicole is not just another virtual girl living in a virtual world, she has a control interface which can affect the world within the sim and the real world actions of the module in which it is hosted, and down from the mountains has come Shaw, a legend of the locals and a very real and a more powerful player than many suspected; he wields power within the sim, but does it extend beyond?
The principal that “those who deny the humanity of others can claim none themselves” which once made justifying killing the enemy easy having suffered extreme mission drift when nobody is human, all the pieces are literally thrown in the air in preparation for the finale which is likely to be explosive and fortunately will not be too long in coming.
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence and Insurgence are available now from Orbit