(2016) Ken MacLeod, Orbit, £12.99, hrdbk, 329pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50498-8
This novel is the first in a series and is slick, fast paced and imaginative. Ken MacLeod is a Scottish hard-ish-SF writer with a lengthy back catalogue whose novels often explore political ideas. The Corporation Wars continues this theme.
Set in the future, a bunch of dead dissidents led by Carlos the Terrorist are reawakened from stored memories into what they believe to be a virtual training simulation where they are prepped for battle against a group of consciousness-attaining robots who threaten the status quo. Everything in the new reality appears to be 'artificial intelligence' (AI) controlled, but the uppity robots refuse to do what they are supposed to, so Carlos and the rest of his disreputable group are sent into destroy them.
Ironies abound. Carlos is not really a terrorist, at least not one that supposedly caused the deaths he was accused of. And the corporations which want to control the nascent AIs are AIs themselves. And what is the status of Carlos’s reality? Is he alive or a virtual replica of life? Is he in a simulation or is his situation real? And when he swaps something he’s told is a simulation but looks and feels real for something he’s told is real but feels like minute robots fighting soundless wars in space, what is really real? Then the alliances shift, and things get even more confused.
Carlos and the other ancient terrorists are resurrected to provide an edge to the war against the rebel robots, ostensibly because they come from a more violent age and modern man lacks the brutality to prevail. The simulation Carlos finds himself in is populated with a mix of avatars and other downloaded consciousness’, but there’s a blurring, which makes this a slippery, intriguing narrative.
The story is told from two points of view: the robot Seba and Carlos, and their stories begin to intertwine. Having two completely different perspectives gives this book depth and variety, and both narratives are strong and focused. For both the questions are the same: who am I? Where am I? How do I get (and keep) my freedom?
This story sets up the series well. It establishes the themes (intelligence, reality), engages in some fine world-building (extra solar, in the future, closely linked to the present day where Carlos and many of the other reactivated dead terrorists are from) and poses plenty of questions. Satisfying things happen, but enough questions and openings remain for strong sequels.
This is fast-paced, intelligent SF with some interesting ideas and a subtle way of presenting them. The writing is fluid, the characters intriguing and the action engaging. What’s not to like?
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