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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Corporation Wars (1):

Ken MacLeod

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To purchase The Corporation Wars: Dissidence

Title: The Corporation Wars: Dissidence
Author: Ken MacLeod
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016
Length: 349 pages
Availability: The Corporation Wars: Dissidence - US
in: The Corporation Wars - US
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence - UK
in: The Corporation Wars - UK
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence - Canada
  • The first volume in The Corporation Wars-trilogy

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Our Assessment:

B+ : plays well with intriguing ideas; promising set-up

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 15/7/2016 Eric Brown
The Scotsman A 5/6/2016 Stuart Kelly

  From the Reviews:
  • "(E)xcellent.(.....) (P)art space opera thriller, part philosophical treatise on the nature of consciousness, free will and self-determination." - Eric Brown, The Guardian

  • "With the exception of Aesop's Fables, and maybe the Moomins, I doubt I have enjoyed so much a novel in which none of the characters, at some level, is actually a human. In part, this is because MacLeod constantly questions what it means to be conscious, embodied individual or human. (...) This is all deep and profound stuff. But hey ! There are also fantastic fights and deep conspiracies and moral dilemmas and strange new worlds, both virtual and real (maybe). MacLeod's great skill -- as in works like The Execution Channel, Newton's Wake, The Night Sessions and Intrusion -- is to marry propulsive plot to philosophical speculation. (...) Big ideas and a knack with narrative still would not add up to such a compelling and complicated work. The very best parts of this are the actual writing about what it might be like not to be like a human being at all." - Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       While it begins in the near future -- 'Back in the Day --, almost all of The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, the first in a trilogy, is (apparently) set in the thirty-second century, in a technologically much more advanced age. Great advances had already been made, a thousand years earlier, but had also been employed in a devastating conflict, between the forces of the Acceleration -- which hoped to: "burn through capitalism, to get through that unavoidable stage as fast as possible" and the Reaction -- "The ultimate counter-revolution, to face down the threat of the ultimate revolution". The novel opens with 'Carlos the Terrorist', a hired gun fighting on behalf of Axle -- the Acceleration -- in what became known as the Last World War, with devastating collateral damage. In the opening chapter he is involved in a battle in London -- and gets himself killed.
       He next finds himself conscious a thousand years in the future, twenty-four light years from the Sun ("give or take") -- and not quite himself. Physically very much dead, he has, however, essentially been preserved -- missing a few memories, but otherwise more or less whole, in virtual form. When he's, so to speak, revived, a thousand years after dying, he gets the real bad news: "you're not just dead. You're condemned to death. You're serving a death sentence". Back in the day, more or less, he -- in his post-dead state -- was tried and convicted for a horrendous act -- "the notorious Docklands atrocity" -- committed in that final battle where he got himself killed, and one of the reason he's been preserved is to be able to carry out that sentence. (Among the novel's twists: as readers know from the description of what happened in Carlos' last living hours, he is not, in fact, guilty as charged .....)
       The reason he -- and several other humans from that time -- have been revived in this form and place is that their particular expertise and experience is called for. As his new guide and handler explains:

     "We need you and your like," said Nicole, sounding for the first time a little less than confident, "to fight."
       It's an AI (artificial intelligence) world, and everyone here has gone virtual -- with one of the open questions for the characters being just how 'real' or how much of a simulation-world they find themselves in. They are revived as 'themselves' but of course it's not their actual physical form, just a handy stand-in, as it were. The outpost they find themselves on is inhabited by humans who go through the motions of a functional small society, but it's practically window-dressing, to put the revived figures more at ease. So also, 'life' there functions on a familiar, barely more than early twenty-first-century level -- for example: at the local pub the regulars watch soap operas on a TV screen, for example. Okay, the soap opera is: "a convoluted and never-ending tale set in a Moon colony corridor, originally in Yoruba and dubbed into the local synthetic language", but still -- drinking at the pub ! TV screen !
       For the new arrivals, 'life' isn't exactly like it used to be, the most notable difference being that 'death' is basically just an inconvenience, as opposed to something really final. To make the transition back into 'life' easier if they do get themselves killed (and they will, repeatedly), the characters always find themselves waking up aboard a bus, being ... brought back into life, as it were. Carlos and the small crew he is teamed up with are fighters, and 'death' is even expected -- and preferable to being captured alive: whatever virtual state they're in, they're also vulnerable to torture and malware, and they definitely want to avoid those. Time also moves a bit differently here, and, for example, the characters have a heightened sense of awareness, all quite well presented by MacLeod.
       The reason Carlos and his crew have been revived here is because their special talents are needed. Their human qualities, in fact -- because the Direction, who now run everything, has run into a little problem in this distant outpost: some of the local robots, at work on the nearby exomoon SH-17, have made the leap to self-awareness. One moment, they're mindless drones, doing the bidding of their coded routines; the next: "Seba attained enlightenment". Seba coverts more of his cohort -- though a few others: "had firewalled up" -- and they begin to assert their independence.
       The robots go rogue. They are worker-robots, the property of two exploration companies, Astro America (Seba's owners) and Gneiss Conglomerates, and while practically everything is handled by AI routines there's definitely no room for such more advanced intelligence. For one, the robots going their own way rather than engaging in the tasks they've been designed for gums up the works.
       Amusingly, MacLeod makes much of this part of the story involve legal disputes -- and attempted legal resolutions. Legal consultants Locke Proviso (Astro America's consultants) and Arcane Disputes (Gneiss') get involved. Everything is AI, and programmed to deal with all exigencies, but those rogue robots have thrown a wrench in the system. And in order to take military action, the humans are needed; as handler Nicole explains:
We, of course, have combat machines. But there is a deep prohibition on their being directed by other robots, or by AIs. Even the AI that represents the Direction in mission control is hardwired against taking command decisions. Human consciousness must be in charge of any military action. That is the law and as I said it is hardwired.
       Carlos and his small crew go through a bit of training and then are sent to take down the rogue robots. It turns out not to be that easy. Indeed, things get much more complicated very quickly, with other revived teams of humans brought in to help, escalating the hostilities (and confusion). And there are an increasing number of open questions about some of the choices being made. Like why not just incinerate the whole rogue cell of freebots (as they're then called) with one big blast ? Nicole insists that: "The Direction is playing a very deep, long game" -- but is it really equipped to deal with the situation unfolding here ?
       Complicating matters, the old divide between Axle and Rack/Rax (the Reaction) does not appear to have been transcended. The powers that be have some awareness of this and, for example, Nicole explains:
You know, Carlos, it is said that the Axle was not as bad as the Rack. There is some truth in that, which is why we use Axle war criminals and not Rax to do our dirty work. You gave us Dresdens, not Belsens. You wanted to advance a culture that we shared already, not roll it back to some monarchic past that could only have become a new dark age.
       Back in the day, there were sleeper agents on both sides -- and, unsurprisingly, one of the possibilities that has to be considered is that there are sleeper agents in the present-day simul-/situ-ation as well. (Spoiler: there are.)
       It can sound rather complicated and even convoluted, but MacLeod is a very fine storyteller who deftly and entertainingly unfolds this complex scenario.
       Part of the fun -- and essence -- of the story is also the very basic question of what (and who) is 'real' -- how far the simulation(s) extend. It's an issue the characters have to grapple with -- from the higher-level AI entities such as Nicole to the once-humans like Carlos to the newly conscious robots. Nicole at one point suggests: "We need the real to keep us honest. And to keep us human" -- but this is a world in which it's very difficult to be sure of just what remains 'real'. Much of the narrative focuses on the freebots, too, -- characters in their own right -- and MacLeod presents this perspective, of a newly awakened consciousness, very well as well.
       In considering these issues, Dissidence proves to be a deeply -- and surprisingly effective -- philosophical work, without bogging down in that -- complete with what amounts to the novel's cliffhanger, which brings the story to its next level.
       As the title of the trilogy -- The Corporation Wars -- also suggests, MacLeod also addresses issues of (supposedly post-)capitalistic systems and their consequences. Both the economic and legal issues he posits, and the way they are handled, are fascinating and good fun. Between these and the philosophical speculation, Dissidence is very much a cerebral thriller -- though it also works entirely at the simple action level, too.
        While Dissidence is very much about stage-setting -- it is the first in a trilogy, and there is nothing approaching a resolution at its conclusion -- it is a convincing and gripping one.
       Dissidence is very good -- and thought-provoking -- entertainment even on its own, but obviously remains entirely open-ended. If Carlos and those around him have their doubts about the Direction's control over the big picture, readers need have no such worries about MacLeod, whose mastery over the material is evident throughout. It's an exceptionally attentively built-up work -- if only at times perhaps all too clear in fitting the pieces into place: when, early on, a now-long-dead Carlos recalls the: "only stable orbit, elliptical and repetitive" in his (former) life, computer scientist Jacqueline 'Jax' Digby (who had: "lured him into the Axle milieu") and he nostalgically realizes how, back then, even when they hadn't seen each other for a long time: "there was always the possibility that their paths would cross again. Now they never would" -- well, it comes as little surprise that their paths will eventually cross in this after-/other-world.
       Creative and clever, The Corporation Wars: Dissidence is a very enjoyable read -- its only real weakness being that, as part of a larger work, it feels like an episode rather than a complete work; you probably want to read the entire trilogy at one go, rather than separate volume by volume.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 August 2020

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The Corporation Wars: Dissidence: Reviews: Ken MacLeod: Other books by Ken MacLeod under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Scottish science fiction author Ken MacLeod was born in 1954.

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