Fiction Reviews

The Corporation Wars: Insurgence

(2017) Ken MacLeod, Orbit, £12.99, hrdbk, 213pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50501-5


It is a thousand years after the 21st century and 24 light years from Earth a superhabitable planet orbits a star, ripe for colonisation. Also in the planetary system is a large moon (SH-17) orbiting a large, super habitable rocky planet (SH0). Inward of these was a rocky habitable planet (H-0). This is the most Earthlike body in the system and is the goal of a mission from Earth to terraform to make it ideal for billions of humans in centuries' time. This planetary system has a lot going for it, though we are very much in the preliminary stages of the venture.

However, there is no biological human life in this system.  Having said that, there are humans, but these are digitised in electronic software form, living within a computer simulation on a space station. The space station that now contains the coding for the humans and simulation were all constructed a by a pre-programmed lightweight star wisp probe sent from Earth centuries ago by its planetary government The Direction. It arrived in this planetary system years ago.

As soon as the star wisp arrived in the system it started harvesting local materials in the system's asteroid belts to build robots who in turn constructed the space station, harvested more materials and explored the system.

The novel commences with a robot on an asteroid orbiting the moon (SH-17) of the large, super habitable planet (SH-0). On this asteroid is a simple robot with basic intelligence called BSR-308455. Yet four months earlier it had been gently hacked from far away and now had awareness. Below the asteroid, on the moon, there were other, more sophisticated robots and all were now freeboots having been hacked and uplifted a year ago and who apparently have issues with the mission.

The Direction's goal was simply to ensure that humanity survives and proliferates. Natural disasters aside, the greatest threat to humanity were its own creations. Self aware robots were not allowed, and it was felt not prudent to grant AI's (artificial intelligences) the responsibility of policing robots: AIs are just too similar to robots. So this job is entrusted to the electronically preserved brain state of formerly human soldiers from historic Earth. Some had already been used to deal with a robot rebellion around one of the system's gas giants (G-0) but some free bots had survived and now new robot consciousness had emerged on the large moon SH-17.

However, the Earth's government – The Direction – had made a mistake in picking human minds from the historic archives as some of these minds had been incorrectly logged and minds of humans from both sides (the Acceleration and the Reaction) of Earth's last World War were now present as these policing solders. Once this was inferred, it was realised that there were more Reaction human minds accidentally infiltrated and so part of the freeboot movement had been set up by the Direction to flush out these Reaction human minds… Are you still with me?

All this is packed into a very, compressed info-dump in the novel's first chapter that warrants careful reading. It presumably is there to explain the novel's set-up that had previously been determined by the groundwork of the first novel of The Corporation Wars trilogy, Dissidence: this second novel, Insurgence is the trilogy's mid book. With Insurgence, the story unfolds very much largely through the perspective of two of the human protagonists (or simulated human minds), but occasionally through the robots especially BSR-308455. Some of these human minds were, I see from Mark's review featured in the trilogy's first title.

At this point I should say that I come to this trilogy, mid-point, completely fresh: I have not read Dissidence but I soon got the hang of matters. In this sense you can be reassured that it is possible to jump in to this trilogy midway and if you like it (as I did) you can go back to the first story later. True, I did not feel vested in either the Direction or the Acceleration or Reaction sides and quite frankly did not care as there was so much going on. Indeed, over halfway through the novel I did wonder whether I was substantially missing out even though I was enjoying the story immensely. Then one of the characters started asking those exact questions and I was reassured.

For me this novel truly scores in the way it explores a possible modus operandi of digitised human minds that can exist both in a simulation (or simulations as there are a number in this planetary system) and the real world; the humans can move from a fantastical simulation, where the laws of physics and time can be changed, to reality in which the minds can inhabit robot frames, and back again. Then again, there is the freebot perspective that includes their viewing the simulated humans as mechanoids: the freeboots based in the real world only see the humans as clunking bits of machinery. Superimpose this on top of a backdrop of planetary system exploration and there is much sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) to stimulate readers' minds.

In the broad sweep of the SF landscape this novel speaks to the developing human-computing narrative that over the decades has included works such as Greg Egan's 1994 novel Permutation City with humans beginning to download their minds into computer environments, or William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984). With Insurgence Ken MacLeod has given us a very enjoyable and stimulating ride, it is a wondrous far future, action thriller of a space opera that hard-ish SF readers will lap up.

This is all well and good, but to be fair to prospective readers it should be noted that despite there being much that is SFnally positive about this novel, there is a substantive problem. The description of the planetary system, especially the abbreviations and their terminology used is very confusing. For instance, why does the mission go for the habitable world H-0 when there are superhabitable worlds available? This issue of abbreviations and terminology really was a stumbling block for me and I could not make sense of it. Could it be that Ken Macleod is a bad writer? This hypothesis can be immediately discounted given his string of previous, excellent books. Then after some thought I realised that he was probably using the term 'super' here meaning 'large' and not indicating that the planet was 'extremely' habitable: I can only think that the author was using 'super' as in 'super Earth' and not denotating that those worlds were 'very' habitable which is what 'superhabitable planet' actually means!

Let's leave that stumbling block aside, for while it is a genuine problem that also has implications for the story, it only crops up here and there, while the rest of the narrative is perfectly fine and engaging.

Also some readers, especially whose diet is more firmly entrenched towards the fantasy end of the speculative fiction spectrum, may find aspects of the novel a little hard going. In part, this is because so much is going on, combined with the many concepts being discussed. In part because MacLeod expects he readers to come from the same place he does and he hates defining matters expecting his readers to know. To give an example, 'AU' – which actually stands for 'astronomical unit' is neither explained or defined: if you did not know, it is the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun. (Similarly 'AI' is not explained as meaning 'artificial intelligence' with its first use, but here perhaps most regular SF readers would get that given the trope's increasing use the past couple of decades.) MacLeod is therefore unforgiving in his assumption that everyone is completely up to speed with SF and science nomenclature as he is (or is not, as his use of astronomical nomenclature suggests). I am not sure whether this is because he knows his readers well, or it is a touch of arrogance: apparently according to the book's end acknowledgment page he had manuscript draft readers though I'm not sure how much good they did or what is their science expertise. True, many of his readers will be as familiar as he with hard SF and space opera concepts, but some may not and others may need gentle, brief reminding. Does it really hurt defining terms when first used or having a short sentence of exposition: not doing so is being a little insensitive to a potentially diverse readership. This novel therefore firmly speaks to core, hard-ish SF readers of space opera. This is fine by me, but woe betide if you are not.

This last aside, this is a fantastical SFnal adventure that as far as I am concerned pushes many of the right buttons. I will seek out the trilogy's first novel, Dissidence, and greatly look forward to its conclusion. Mid-trilogy novels often end up being the weakest of the three books; they tend to mark time following the intrigue establishing the trilogy's set-up before the trilogy's grand denouement. That this mid-trilogy novel is so strong, itself is telling.

Jonathan Cowie

Reviewed elsewhere on this site by Ken MacLeod:-
                                        The Corporation Wars: Dissidence
                                        Cosmonaut Keep
                                        Dark Light
                                        Learning the World
                                        The Restoration Game
                                        The Sky Road
                                        The Stone Canal

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