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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Corporation Wars (2):

Ken MacLeod

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To purchase The Corporation Wars: Insurgence

Title: The Corporation Wars: Insurgence
Author: Ken MacLeod
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016
Length: 331 pages
Availability: The Corporation Wars: Insurgence - US
in: The Corporation Wars - US
The Corporation Wars: Insurgence - UK
in: The Corporation Wars - UK
The Corporation Wars: Insurgence - Canada
  • The second volume in The Corporation Wars-trilogy

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Our Assessment:

B : fascinating ideas, but the action isn't always easy to follow

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Scotsman . 15/12/2016 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "I have said before that MacLeod poses the most fascinating moral, philosophical, political and theological problems in contemporary science fiction. I have neglected to say how funny he is -- stretching ideas to their breaking point, gleefully finding the absurdity in the reductio ad absurdum." - 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:

       Insurgence is the middle volume in The Corporation Wars-trilogy, and continues the story from Dissidence. It opens with a robot that has attained consciousness, BSR-308455, on a rock that is in orbit around the exomoon SH-17, itself in orbit around the superhabitable planet SH-0 (which is the big prize and goal of the efforts in this remote corner of the universe). The small rock isn't much of a center of attention, almost lost in all the noisier activity around it, but BSR-308455 does register that a scooter -- a small spacecraft -- has taken course for it, and it prepares to defend its turf against it.
       SH-0 is, as is explained to twenty-first-century Carlos the Terrorist, who lives on, more than a thousand years later, in virtual form:

the prize. The jewel of this entire extrasolar system ! It has endlessly complex environments and above all it has multicellular life.
       While single-celled and simpler life is fairly common throughout the universe, SH-0 the only place other than Earth where they've found multicellular life. The long-term plan is to make SH-0 habitable for humans, and make it an enormous human colony -- but there's a lot to do to get there, and one of the main concerns at this point is still avoiding contaminating the planet -- which is why the approach so far has been strictly hands-off: lots of preparation in the vicinity, but no attempts at beginning to settle down there.
       The more or less on its own freebot BSR-308455 -- connected with others but operating at a fringe, as it were -- and the approaching scooter, transporting one Harold Isaac Newton, and the arc of their actions (including then interactions and reactions) anchor the story in Insurgence: while not always the focus, the story comes back to them at various stages, with their actions playing a significant role in the larger picture, which then also involves the desperate attempt to keep anyone from landing on SH-0.
       Newton, in human form, in the late twenty-first century, had been a university student of physics and astronomy who had lived a double-life. He was: "young, male, black, British and reactionary", and, under a pseudonym, a well-known commentator in support of Rax -- the Reaction(ary) faction in the ideological conflicts of the times. He became more active in the movement, and took on a role he was perfectly suited for: a spy within the ranks of the Acceleration -- the Axle. Killed in the process, his mind was virtually preserved -- and when he was brought back online he found himself in "Acceleration heaven", but still a Rax at heart (and hoping to find other sleepers within the present-day Axle ranks).
       The Acceleration-programme had been to: "bring about the most rapid development of capitalism in order, as they saw it, for society to pass beyond it to a new system, and for humanity to pass beyond it to a new system". The Reaction tried to counter these efforts -- and the ideological differences between the two forces remain relevant to the present-day. With some robots having attained consciousness, this new element also comes to play in the ongoing conflict -- the freebots not finding either side to look particularly helpful to their still developing cause. As one observes:
My understanding of the Reaction is that every member of it regards every other mind -- organic or machine -- as a potential slave. My understanding of the Acceleration is that its members regard every machine -- conscious or not -- as a potential tool. For us there is not a great deal to choose between them.
       The various entities all also have a variety of existential issues -- who or what they are -- as all the 'humans' are, after all, virtual beings that 'come alive' as it were in physical form but can also survive its destruction (reborn then, yet again, and waking up, with a few lost memories, in the same old bus). Their forms, and state, lead to fundamental questions of identity and being -- including one particularly intriguing one:
Look ! We're inside a fucking machine intelligence ! We're in a world running in a box. Built by robots ! Around another star ! And all this is the work of human beings like us, biologically enhanced maybe, long-lived, but basically just like us. [...] So what's missing from all this [...] is any explanation, any account, any argument even over how things are kept that way. The Singularity should have happened. The world back there, the world this mission launched from, more than half-way through the Third Millennium, should have been posthuman all the way through. Humanity should have been left behind in the dust. We should all have been gods. [...] The only reason it's not happening is because it's being stopped. And we've found nothing, nothing at all, not a hint or a rumour or an allusion, about how it's being stopped.
       Controlled by the Direction, much remains opaque -- from the state of their being to the ultimate goals. As Carlos notes when mulling it over:
No, the Direction was playing multidimensional chess while they were playing checkers
     So what was its game ?
       Part of the fun of The Corporation Wars is how rules-based much of the action is: legal disputes and their resolution figure prominently, and the characters work through different scenarios of what motivations might be driving some of the entities behind these. Among the issues the freebots have to confront is their (legal) standing in this world, as current law does not recognize them as persons (and therefore as entities-with-rights) -- and so, for example:
According to existing law, no deed of ours has anything to do with such matters as neutrality or property. We do not exist as legal persons. We exist only as property. Any actions of ours are not those of agents. It is simply the thrashing about of malfunctioning machinery.
       The freebots would like to operate within a legal framework -- their own or, preferably, the existing one -- and among the ingenious ideas they have is of incorporation: as companies are considered legal persons, that is a backdoor to significant rights.
       Determining just how 'real' this reality is -- and the consequences of that -- play a large role in much of the action. An artificial world that that has been constructed for them -- 'humans' and machines -- to operate in, for example, is based on an ancient computer game, and this comes with a lot of its baggage (and oddities). Meanwhile, in trying to determine just how much is faked or not, some of the characters go exploring in a library; among the arguments proposed here is that:
     "You can't always trust a society's facts," Carlos said. "But you can trust its fiction."
       It's a ... complex setting for a fiction, and the fiction sometimes does bog down in that complexity here, as also the narrative shifts around a lot between various individuals and groups (and issues). As a frustrated Carlos at one point thinks to himself:
This was madness. Their whole situation was one of radical uncertainty. Everything was code, including themselves. And the code had been written by the very people (well, legal persons) who wanted to convince them. So was anything they could use to check it. It was trust issues all the way down.
       Readers might, in part, feel similarly unmoored. Fascinating though The Corporation Wars continues to be as a novel of ideas, Insurgence is a fairly slippery read as far as the action goes.
       If there are (occasionally confusing) heaps of action, ideas, and personal stories, MacLeod does do well with much of the detail, making for an intriguing (semi-virtual) world. A nice touch are details such as the obvious (but generally ignored in space-fiction) observation that:
     Space combat is nothing like aerial warfare. Course corrections are possible -- sideways thrusts -- but in vacuum there is no air to enable screaming turns, and little call for dogfight skills. It's largely a matter of who gets their shot in first.
       This middle volume in the trilogy is obviously not the place to start with it, and remains something of a middle piece, with a few significant advances -- theoretical and actual -- but the bigger picture and story still wide open.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 December 2020

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The Corporation Wars: Insurgence: 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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