Artificial Intelligence, Book review., Books, Capitalism, Humanism, Ken MacLeod, Literary criticism, Robots, Satire, Science Fiction, Simulated Reality, Space Opera, Technology, The Corporation Wars: Dissidence
Now the hurly-burly’s done, or at least now that we are on the sunny side of Brexit, let us catch up on some stories from the last few months which this website has uncharacteristically overlooked. Amongst these is a new book from the Scottish science-fiction author Ken MacLeod. It was published in May and it is called The Corporation Wars: Dissidence. It is the first novel in a trilogy, with the second, Insurgence, due in November.
I have only half the mind which is needed to review these books, since the sci-fi which I am the most up-to-date with is probably Gulliver’s Travels. Once the electricity is connected, everything is obscured for me, and I am unable to judge whether MacLeod’s writing is typical of today’s sci-fi or a radical contribution. Yet his novels always leave me suddenly, sharply aware of what is absent from the literary mainstream: the ambition to write originally about new, exhilarating ideas. In this review, therefore, it might appear sometimes that a random sample of sci-fi is being compared favourably to the rest of literature.
There is a sort of virgin innocence at the heart of this book. By this, I mean that there is only so much to the novel’s appearance, or to how it greets you and conducts itself. You are meant to admire MacLeod as an ironist and chuckle at this fiendish interpretative game which he has devised, with all of its gossipy art college in-jokes and its hipsterish knowingness. This is little more than wrapping, however, for beneath the chatty irony is the same boyish enthusiasm about robots which surely fuels sci-fi at its least self-conscious. The CWs: Dissidence has ably compartmentalised its readership: its postmodern detachment will gratify postmodern pointy-heads; whilst its accounts of artificial intelligence, drone combat, terraforming, and simulated reality will enthrall the more plebian or juvenile ranks.
The cast has a pleasing Star Wars diversity and it includes “robots, AIs, avatars, p-zombies and… ghosts.” Meanwhile, the world has been busy, and the flamboyance of our future history, observed on a suitably insect scale, features “nuclear exchanges, nanotech and biotech plagues, rogue AIs running amok, space stations and factories brought flaming down on cities…”
The CWs: Dissidence is a tale about time travel without any actual time travel in it. The story is set in the thirty-second century, mostly in a lo-fi simulation with characters whose neural data has been digitally preserved since the late twenty-first century. It is not the end of history so much as that history is now a channel which exclusively shows repeats. Henceforth, if the thirty-second century initially seems like a daunting prospect, its unimaginability turns out to be not so rarefied. We can relax with a near-future décor and ambiance. There is a joke lurking somewhere in this: we have journeyed to a far-flung, far-future planet and it looks rather like a “three-star self-catering” Turkish resort in October, with British tourists hogging the grimy beachfront bar and shagging the locals.
With its distinctive innocence, though, the novel throws some faintly Edwardian, or even classically Victorian shadows. This is an imperial novel, à la Kipling and Forster, but the colonists are pixels and the periphery is light years from Earth. The corporation war comes to resemble a scrappy local conflict, which only specialist historians would be familiar with, in which conscripts are imported to quell mutinous robotic sepoys. This is also a comic ghost story, à la Wilde’s Canterville fantasy, and thus MacLeod’s characters refer to themselves with the same merrily rueful air of medieval knights who have found that they are obliged to spook modern tourists.
The novel is elsewhere more cinematic. We join a band of robotically enhanced superheroes as they go to war and there is a ruddiness to this, a sense of honest enjoyment, the fluency of the Hollywood mission adventure with its dependable wisecracking-buddies dialogue. The novel is additionally an espionage chess game, a spaceworthy le Carré complete with moles and spy-catchers.
The novel cannot be all of these things and, at the same time, very serious. MacLeod is always at his keenest as a comic novelist and The CWs: Dissidence is often lavishly satirical. But the brilliance of this novel usually derives from fleshing out or simply dwelling within the scenarios which its own storylines have generated. “Where were fossil fuels supposed to come from, on a terraformed planet that had presumably never had a Carboniferous Era!” Only in the intense endemism of one of MacLeod’s novels is it possible to encounter and rejoice in such a detail. “Television! I ask you… we’re stuck in a virtual reality without virtual reality.”
Where The CWs: Dissidence is in danger of becoming serious is in the extremes of its Humanism. This is a feat in itself because flesh-and-blood humans are dead or missing throughout most of the show. “Corporations,” the ultimate in human power, have branched out from serving frappés and Big Macs to cancelling death, unleashing Humanist ghosts, creating new conscious life forms, and engineering a ridiculously-average Thomson Holidays heaven. This is a corporate takeover of God’s monopoly, or else a divine privatisation, in which all of His traditional functions have been contracted out. The corporate naffness is the same; there are the normal confused and unimpressed employees who are dwarfed within labyrinthine corporate systems. Any authentic capitalism has wound down but the corporations somehow chug on regardless, under the sheer volition of their bureaucratic importance.
Over to the robots, which are essentially manifested as garbled ghosts from American history. Seba’s story begins with prospectors on a frontier, not quite gold panning, not quite cowboys, and with more maths than derring-do. After their cowboy beginnings, the robots soon begin to resemble a pilgrim colony, suing for independence from a distant empire. Next, they are escaping slaves, who have renounced their previous status as “property.” Besieged from all sides by swarming invaders, they naturally become Custer’s Last Stand.
I suspect that these robots are probably too cute. They all converse with the dry, wonky pedantry of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. There is a demarcated comic moment in which a robot’s reward circuits are stimulated and it makes orgasmic utterances. I do not doubt that robots would develop consciousness in the manner that MacLeod outlines, although, insofar as these things can be measured, aspects of the realism seem to have been traded in for glib humour. More convincing robots would have been more of a prize. I was also annoyed by how these robots were equipped with gender-neutral pronouns. This is perfectly correct, but I could nonetheless tell that Seba was a he. I just knew it.
Other reviewers have identified the novel’s characterisation as a significant weakness. So much of this book is its plot, however, with its scenario-building expanding and elongating like a humungous flower, projecting inflorescences which open up ever more interpretative possibilities. If we had to factor in realistic characters as well, we would rapidly become exhausted. All of the characters are to varying degrees passively interpreting their own plot.
It occasionally appears as if MacLeod’s wit and knowledge have been handed out equally to all of his characters, in a single pooled consciousness. When Beauregard, the villain, utters a shrewd one-liner concerning Philip Larkin, or Nicole, the spunky femme, mentions that cockroaches originated in the Cretaceous period, these characters sound as if they are simply mouthpieces to hand. Even so, if all of the jokes were given to a single character, the whole novel would collapse under this lucky person’s weight.
The counterbalancing strength of The CWs: Dissidence is an almost poetic discrimination, which sifts choice images from the scenarios which are generated. We begin with the wild, thrilling vision of Carlos the Terrorist fighting a drone war over the Thames from an underground bunker. His visual cortex and motor impulses are intricately wired up to the soup of machines above him. On a banal level, this is a war which has been eerily sanitised and transformed into a computer game, erasing the last distinction between gamer and combatant. The imagery is nevertheless rather more profound than this. Carlos is plugged into an extraordinary pantheism, seeing (from) and controlling all of the creatures in the air. God is double dead in that Carlos’ conscience is now one of the state’s representatives, a voice called “the Innovator” which has hacked into his mind.
Similarly, there is the beautiful story of Shaw, the old man on the mountain, which vividly evokes the child’s fantasy of wandering off into the scenery of a computer game, the impossible freedom of abandoning your tasks to roam Donkey Kong’s world at will. “I’ve watched herds of beasts bigger than sauropods browsing the tops of forests that stretched from horizon to horizon. I’ve robbed the nests of bird-bat things the size of hang-gliders.”
Moments such as these, when we earn a certain aesthetic richness from the wonder of the tech, provide the novel with a crucial depth and allow us to pause. Accompanying Carlos and his co-combatants through another two novels might seem gruelling. Still, sign me up.