It’s been quite a few years since Ken MacLeod last went into out space, the arena to which the divided protagonists aspired in his first novel, The Star Fraction, but which formed the backdrop of the rest of the Fall Revolution series and the Engines of Light trilogy. The last decade has seen his focus shift to near future techno thrillers such as The Execution Channel and The Night Sessions as well as the toned-down glimpses into a skewed tomorrow of Intrusion and Descent.
With his new trilogy, to be completed within a year with Insurgence due November and Emergence scheduled for May 2017, high technology and alien worlds are back on the menu as the competing corporations vying for control of a resource rich distant star system come into open conflict, the whole told through the viewpoint of those on either side and wrapped in nested shells of deception, disinformation, bluff and downright lies, indistinguishable from truth in a world where anything can be manipulated or invented.
It began years ago in the Last World War when Carlos was designated a terrorist when he ceased to be useful to his nominal allies when he refused to down a civilian airliner over London’s Docklands. A double crossed pawn in the ancient tech war between the Acceleration and the Reaction (the Axle and the Rax), he died when his underground hideout was bombed but his memories were unexpectedly revived a thousand years later to serve out the term of his posthumously imposed sentence in a new war.
On a distant planetoid, a conceptual leap in the autonomous mining robots has resulted in a cognisance of self both for them and the similar automatons working for a rival corporation. Engaged in a contractual dispute, each has modelled the other’s anticipated actions, then beyond that the model the other has created of them to predict their own behaviour, then a further model to pre-empt the predictions of that model, accreting layers of awareness evolving to consciousness.
The awakening spreading like a virus, the robots ally while their parent companies attempt to hold back the tide of the new digital revolution with extreme prejudice, isolating the robots then sending swarms of their less developed cousins against them. When those actions fail the decision is made to send in a force controlled by conscious formerly human entities revived specifically for that purpose under the guidance of the too-unflappable-to-be-fully-human handler Nicole Pascal.
Opening in the middle of a battle in an ongoing war, the two opposing sides of the Axle and the Rax are given insufficient time to become understood the reader, and although that conflict is quickly left behind it does echo into the future story, but perhaps that is the point: behind their names, the flags they once waved for their proclaimed ideologies of right, maybe there is no appreciable difference in their methods even if their goals are nominally divergent.
To call the novel military science fiction would be to do it a disservice, the characters and situations more complex than the typical “big guns in space” scenario that label implies, the discussions across the spectrum of motivations and means and results reminding of The Star Fraction. Questioning the truth of what has been told to them, if everything is a simulation, if all they see and hear and feel is a created environment fed to their senses, how can they trust anything without empirical verification? Even so, they have no choice but to get on with the job.
Told they must atone for crimes they might not even recall, so close they were allegedly committed to the deaths of the perpetrators, the moments lost in that not-so-final trauma, now Carlos and his squad of former Axle soldiers, programmers and hackers must prove their worthiness to re-enter humanity by following orders and learning to destroy sentient robots, their practice sessions on avatars powered by the same AI who hosts them an oxymoron not lost on the troops.
When battle comes, both sides are equally familiar to the reader, but counter-intuitively it is the robots who stand to lose more than the former humans who are backed up should the need arise for their copies to be revived in further iterations. Cut frustrating short just as things are really getting hot on both sides, it is just as well it is only a few months until the Insurgence continues.
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence is available now from Orbit