The first volume in Ken MacLeod’s new ‘Corporation Wars’ series, ‘Dissidence’, takes us straight into the action as we learn the back stories of the two main characters. Carlos is a reactionary/computer-hacker/terrorist in the midst of a war over London, controlling drones and weapons and swiftly meeting a violent end. Seba is a mining robot in a far distant star system who attains consciousness and quickly discovers that the powers that be are keen to quash any such self-awareness. Both characters and their settings are written in contrasting styles, the precise language and thoughtful development of Seba’s world compared with the raucous, chaotic and slang-filled world of Carlos.
A thousand years after his death, Carlos is brought back as a virtual download inhabiting a sim on a colony planet as it might look after terraforming. This is the same barren planet that Seba is working on and Carlos soon learns that he and other similar fighters have been brought back in order to combat the menace of the rogue robots. The disparate timelines are confusing for a while, when we discover that the sim planet has been running for a thousand years but at a different rate and the fighters are transferred between the two and it may not be real anyway or maybe none of it is real. That’s the problem with stories involving AIs and virtual realities and downloaded personalities: who’s to say what, if anything, is real? This also means that, although the plot and characters were engaging, I was left with the nagging feeling of does it really matter? If they can be re-booted every time they die and the AI robots can transmit their personality to another robot body, than what are the consequences?
Carlos and his revolutionary fighting buddies and their possibly real companions are entertaining enough. Their conversations are full of banter and swagger and the space battles are well-written and convincing. The parts that I found particularly well done, though, were the conversations between the newly-conscious robots. Their personalities are minimal at first and Ken MacLeod has cleverly extrapolated their modes of thought and responses from their original purposes: mining, communications, exploration, etc. Their interactions and the logical conclusions they sometimes erroneously come to are brilliantly conceived and, at times, funnier than the natural-sounding language of the soldiers. The robots’ intelligence in terms of processing power and reasoning ability is hampered by their limited understanding of the real world and yet they still come to the correct decisions via arcane reasoning. The dangers of recursive logic loops and positive or negative feedback are an accepted part of their personalities and the ability to reprogram themselves to alter their opinion is viewed in a totally different way than if we were to suggest it of ourselves.
As the story develops and the layers of shell corporations, AIs, conspiracies, lost memories and suspicions build up, it becomes a constant and rewarding challenge to try to second-guess the author. Right from the start you can tell that more is involved than we or the characters have been told and, with a second volume already in the works, it’s obvious there will be no final resolution in this book. At 325 pages, it’s long enough to build a good story without causing too much brain-ache and we’re left at a suitable juncture where significant developments are afoot. The sequel ‘Insurgence’ is out in December and I enjoyed this enough to be glad that it’s not too long to wait.
Gareth D. Jones
(pub: Orbit/LittleBrown. 326 page small hardback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-356-50498-8)
check out website: http://www.orbitbooks.net/