Fiction Reviews

The Corporation Wars: Emergence

(2017) Ken MacLeod, Orbit, hrdbk, 326pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50504-6


This is the final book in the Corporation Wars trilogy by experienced UK writer Ken MacLeod, and like the first volume it follows a group of newly-conscious ‘freebots’ on a mining/manufacturing complex on an asteroid orbiting a moon circling a planet in another planetary system effectively cut off from Earth, battling ‘mechanoids’, i.e. robot bodies hosing the consciousnesses of long-dead terrorists and freedom fighters from various old Earth factions loosely falling into the Acceleration (broadly left wing), the Reaction or Rex (right wing) and now working for various corporations, all run by artificial intelligences (AIs), all part of the ruling Direction. Some of the mechanoids and freebots form an alliance against the right-wing Rex, led by the fascist Dunt.

Our hero is ex-terrorist Carlos, who has our sympathy because he was a cause-fighter effectively framed for mass atrocities. In between fighting AIs and the Rex, Carlos and his colleagues hang out in time-accelerated Sim modules, happy stress-free places where they can indulge their fantasies. Over time, the downloaded consciousnesses exert more control over their environments and dream of being properly free, in nice new bodies (long promised by the Direction). Trouble is, all sides are fighting a proxy war far from any real humans and, with everyone having such differing perspectives, it’s hard to find common ground.

The plot? War, betrayal, fusion drives and an increasingly strong desire to leave the system and get away from it all, shifting a satellite Space-1999-like across the galaxy. The plot and action are complex and messy, and it is often difficult to work out where you are (on one of the confusingly serial-number named planets or satellites/moons, or in one of the various simulation modules). There is a scene early on, for instance, where one of the ‘humans’ loses an arm. It took me a while to realise it was a mechanical arm, and even longer to realise to was an arm attached to some sort of exo-skeleton device rather than the usual mechanoid download (confusingly described as ‘robots’, even though they are not). And I’ve still probably got that wrong – it is, at times, really difficult to work out what’s going on in this book. That is partly to do with the sheer number of characters who each appear in many different guises, partly to do with the lack of clear descriptions and partly due to the many different factions, corporations, groups and serial-number designations that make your brain hurt.

Thematically, the book appears to be about the emergence of consciousness and what it is to be human, wrapped around some broad political labelling. Hence the Sims, the downloaded dead humans, the robot bodies, the AI rulers and their human-looking avatars (one tellingly called John Locke), the pointlessness of their endeavours and their search for meaning. It works better on this level: the ideas are interesting and (though not new) aired in a fresh, insightful way. Although the AIs become one-dimensional, the humans are complex and curious, though MacLeod could have pushed the ‘why am I here?’ line more. Let’s get our humanity back is the emerging message – approached from a number of different angles.

Ultimately, though, I wanted less confusion and more real tension. Admittedly I missed the second volume in this trilogy (reviewed by Jonathan), but it took me ages to recall/work out who all the characters were – and when I did, I realised the action hadn’t moved on significantly from the first novel – still fighting, still working stuff out, still hanging out in the Sims. And as for tension, well, since all the humans who die in robot real world conflict end up reborn in their Sims (like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica) then it is more like being booted out of a video game than being in any real peril. Reboot, strap back in, off again…

I quite like aspects of this book: some of the characters are engaging and the ideas are stimulating. But you’d have to read at least the first volume to have any clue as to what was going on, and even then this isn’t going to be an easy read. Still, I’m all for books that make you pay attention.

Mark Bilsborough

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