The Corporation Wars: Insurgence by Ken Macleod (book review)

The second book in ‘The Corporation Wars’ trilogy, ‘Insurgence’, carries on directly from ‘Dissidence’ in this multi-faceted plot involving far-future AIs, virtual reality and planetary colonisation. It’s also known as the ‘Second Law Trilogy’ in some places, though not on the cover of this book.

A group of human fighters from various factions have been resurrected as software reconstructions a thousand years from now, inhabiting a virtual sim of a new colony planet, but actually existing in a module orbiting that planet. They have been brought back by the controlling AIs of the module to fight the autonomous robots in the system that have gained intelligence, now known as freebots. The entire mission is controlled by the Direction, Earth’s government as represented by the AIs, but numerous companies and their legal representatives, each with their own corporate AIs, are engaged in various disagreements about the way the mission should be run, as well as with the freeboots. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the reborn fighters were drawn from the radical group known as the Acceleration, the only preserved minds available with fighting experience. They don’t necessarily agree with the Direction, and have also been infiltrated by radicals from the Reaction and both radical groups had also been infiltrated by agents from various security agencies. What this amounts to is a marvellously confusing melee of plans and counter-plans, suspicion and law-suits.

The novel’s plot continues in much the same vein as the first volume with the disagreements and battles continuing to wage back and forth with varying amounts of intensity depending on who is on who’s side and whether any of them realise who else actually agrees with them. There’s space combat between modules, freebots and fighters from both factions who have been uploaded into mechanoid bodies, which is written with a nice adherence to reality that acknowledges such things as acceleration and inertia. The virtual reality environments also do a good job of integrating advanced technology, AI personas and fantasy trappings in a sensible way that allows the reader and the resurrected humans to understand what is happening, even if the underlying science is far too complex to represent accurately.

As the book went on, I began to lose track of who believed what, who supported which philosophy and what the various groups stood for. When individuals within each group also started questioning their own aims, I came to the conclusion that it didn’t really matter whether I was keeping up with the convoluted alliances as most of the time nobody involved was really sure who to trust or believe or ally themselves with neither.

There’s a lot at stake for all the parties involved, including two habitable planets, various moons that are rich in resources and various moonlets and rocks. Some of these are the dominion of recently awakened freeboots whose naiveté is often touching and whose conversations are wonderfully refreshing.

I enjoyed this second volume more than the first, revelling in the unabashed confusion and entertaining chaos. By the end of the book, as freeboots, fighters, AIs, corporations and the Direction continue to jockey for position and attempt to secure their futures, I couldn’t tell you who was winning or what any of them had accomplished. I’m looking forward to figuring it out in the final instalment though.

Gareth D Jones

January 2017

(pub: Orbit, 2016. 309 page small enlarged hardback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-356-50501-5)

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