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The Corporation Wars: Dissidence by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2016, 333 p

 The Corporation Wars: Dissidence cover

Most of the “characters” in this novel are dead, their consciousnesses (or what remains of them) uploaded into a simulation. Others are robots whose “minds” have gained awareness. The first of these presents a problem; one which I have written about before here and here. I know that fiction isn’t a description of the real, it’s all made-up – thinly disguised real lives of the roman à clef aside – but it aspires to that verisimilitude; the people we are reading about ought to feel real, or at the very least plausible, their perils and dilemmas actual to the reader even if at one remove. Breaking the necessary suspension of disbelief is a dangerous activity for an author, with the potential fatally to undermine what is the delicate process of interacting with a fictional text. But if the characters in a novel are themselves dead the distancing goes too far. Put simply, if these people are dead already why should the reader care? There is no real jeopardy; they can be resurrected at the touch of a button. Yes, there is the argument that our “real life” might itself be a simulation so what does it matter if the characters in a novel also are but that falls down on the grounds that we can only suspect it, we do not know it for sure.

The action, and there is a lot of it, takes place on or near an exo-planet long after the Final War on Earth between the more-or-less progressive Acceleration and the counter-revolutionary Reaction. A government known as “The Direction” is nominally in charge but as a result of the development of robot consciousness various companies are now at war either with the robots or each other. Human consciousnesses from the time of the Final War have been preserved, training to fight the Corporations’ wars after being decanted into a virtual reality of the way the exo-planet will be after its terraformation. The story-telling details here are elegant enough, the “bus journey” from the “spaceport” every time they are resurrected from an abortive mission is a nice touch. The shadow of the Final War still hangs over these remnants though. The extension of their consciousnesses beyond their bodies when they are in their (tiny) battle arrays is also neatly handled, instantaneous connectivity feeling akin to telepathy, being able to “smell” the sun etc.

Curiously (or perhaps not, as they may be the most “real” characters in the book as opposed to mere ghosts of electrons fizzing about in a server) it is the robots who seem the most human entities in Dissidence even if their dialogue, , can be a little reminiscent of Dalek in its terseness and detached vocabulary (though admittedly, is never an injunction I have heard issued by a Dalek.)

As usual with MacLeod there is a degree of philosophical discourse, especially among the robots, and of political discussion. There is also an allusion to please all SF buffs, “I have no mouth and I must gape.” If you can get over any nagging doubts about the “reality” of the dilemmas and situation of the entities here it’s a fine read.

Pedant’s corner: when in their “battle” arrays the “humans” also spoke in chevrons apart from one instance at the close of a section where the quote marks were normal. I didn’t gain the impression they had yet dropped out of battle mode. There was also medieval (long time devotees know I prefer mediaeval or even mediæval,) plus “upside the head” (a USianism, what’s wrong with “on the head”?)

The Highway Men by Ken MacLeod

Sandstone, 2006, 74 p. (Sandstone vista 8.)

 The Highway Men cover

This novella is one I missed when it first came out and so have only just caught up with. It is set in a near future after a Chinese guy gasping for a cigarette lost his rag on an aeroplane coming in to Edinburgh, the resulting fracas and panicked phone calls interfering with the plane’s controls so that it crashed into an aircraft-carrier in Rosyth, hence precipitating war with China. The highway men of the title, deemed not tech-savvy enough for the army have instead been drafted to work on the roads. When this was written Osama Bin Laden had not been killed and so appears in this future. Consequently the novella now has to be read as an altered history.

The action takes place in Scotland’s Western Highlands. En route to a job our highway men come across an abandoned village where all the glass has been removed from the windows. At their destination of Strathcarron narrator Jase (Jason Mason) realises a group of people estranged from society is living up in the hills. His going to see them there has unfortunate consequences.

An interesting scenario with believable well-drawn characters – even at such short length.

Pedant’s corner:- smoothes (smooths,) gulley (gully.)

I’m on the Map!

Literally.

Despite me not having a piece of fiction published for a few years – and only ever one novel – I’ve been included on this map of British SF and Fantasy writers. (If you click on the map it will lead you to its creator’s website, where copies can be purchased):-

Science Fiction and Fantasy Literary Map

I’m humbled by this. Imagine me being on the same map as Alasdair Gray, Iain (M) Banks, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald, Eric Brown, Arthur C Clarke, J G Ballard, George Orwell et al. Not to mention J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon.)

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

Descent by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2014, 407 p.

This book is dedicated to the memory of the author’s close friend, Iain (M) Banks, and may be considered as a tribute. It is topped and tailed by two of the protagonist’s dreams, titled respectively 0.1111 Recurring and 0.2222 Recurring. The first of these is very Banksian in tone.

Some time in the near(ish) future Ryan Sinclair and his friend Calum, who has a more demotic form of speech than Ryan, have a close encounter with a strange silver sphere in the hills above Greenock. Ryan thereafter experiences dreams/memories of the classic UFO alien abduction scenario. Calum does not. Both are subsequently visited by mysterious strangers – in Ryan’s case a man calling himself the Reverend James Baxter, a literal Man in Black. Thereafter Baxter figures intermittently throughout the novel. (Quite why MacLeod used the name of perhaps Scotland’s most famous footballer for this character is obscure; to me at least.)

Descent contains simultaneously an exploration and a debunking of the UFO abduction story but is also much more than this. Calum tells Ryan a family history about uniqueness and distancing. In his later life as a freelance science journalist, Ryan uncovers evidence, through fertility statistics, of speciation occurring within humans. This affects Ryan’s life directly in his relationship with Gabrielle, one of Calum’s relatives, whom he meets at a wedding. While Ryan is busy with his Highers* a worldwide change in economic arrangements called the Big Deal saves capitalism from itself by instituting what Calum refers to as a kind of socialism (but if it is, it is very dilute.) The pre-Big Deal revolutionaries evaporate away in this new dispensation where jobs are more abundant, while silver airships and smart fabrics make their appearance. Otherwise people’s activities, drinking, vaping (presumably of e-cigs,) buying, selling, work and relationships are more or less as we know them now. The UFO aspect of his story allows MacLeod to have some fun with government’s response to such manifestations.

The early scenes set in Greenock bear some similarities to Alan Warner’s The Deadman’s Pedal. Both novels have at their start a sixteen year old protagonist, a West of Scotland seaside town setting, a sudden attraction to a girl. The writing of the two novels is comparable also. Descent is a different beast altogether, however. While Warner’s book dealt with politics only obliquely MacLeod has always been a writer whose interest in political ideas has been foregrounded in his fiction. He never lets it get in the way of the story but his engagement with politics is distinctive among SF writers.

In character terms Descent deals with betrayal, revenge and redemption. While the SF elements are necessary to the plot, they could be considered as trappings, scaffolding on which to build the human story.

A nice touch was the inclusion of the phrase, “Gonnae naw dae that,” made famous in Scotland by the TV series Chewin’ the Fat.

*A Scottish educational qualification (originally the Higher School Leaving Certificate) and roughly equivalent to A-levels, but undertaken over one year.) Nitpick:- page 84 refers to Calum excelling at O-level technical drawing. O-levels were not a Scottish examination. Some Scottish schools did enter their pupils for them but I doubt that happened in Greenock. Nor will it. The Scottish equivalent, O-grades, were superseded in the 1980s by Standard Grades, which in their turn have this year been replaced by National 3, 4 and 5 qualifications. O-levels were replaced in England by GCSEs from 1988.

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2012, 387p.

 The Intrusion cover

It’s not often you read a Science Fiction novel partly set on the Isle of Lewis but if you’ve been seeking one out you need look no further. Congratulations to MacLeod for his courage in that regard. One of Intrusion’s characters, Hugh Morrison, was brought up there but MacLeod also manages to work in to his narrative an oblique reference to the early 2000s child abuse scandal on Lewis. The Lewis setting is not tacked on, though, Lewis is integral to the plot but the action also features London.

Sometime in the near future, solar cells in the Sahara have rendered conventional power stations and other renewables such as windfarms obsolete. A Warm War is in train with Russia as the main “enemy” and anti-technology terrorists known as NAXAL hold sway over parts of Asia. In the UK, anti-terrorism legislation has led to greater police powers (including an acceptance of torture) and an aggressive safety culture means women are gradually being eased from the workplace and wear monitor rings to ensure they are not exposed to harmful agents – tobacco, alcohol, drugs – especially while they are pregnant. A pill known as the “Fix” corrects possibly harmful mutations in the womb and provides a type of immunisation against minor ailments. While religious exemptions from taking the Fix are allowed, distinctions are made between “new” kids, “faith” kids and “nature” kids.

Hugh and his wife Hope have had one nature kid and she is pregnant again. A lot of the plot centres round the efforts of those in authority to persuade her to take the Fix and her unwillingness to do so. In the meantime interactions between tachyons and rhodopsin may provide an explanation for the “second sight” not uncommon in Lewis.

Given the ongoing encroachment on civil liberties in the UK, the pusillanimity of politicians towards safeguards (well satirised here in the words of a Labour MP,) the police state MacLeod gives us is not too far-fetched. Second sight as tachyon-mediated visions from another world is a bit more problematic, though.

The title works on several levels. There is the intrusion of the state into private life (and of the police into public life,) there is the possible intrusion of tachyons into the real world and Hugh’s experiences of another world (“the summer beyond the winter”) impinging on Lewis. In this respect the Fix is nothing but a Mcguffin, though it too is an intrusion; into the natural process. Yes, it has a plot function but the timescale seems wrong for such a powerful technology to have been so thoroughly assimilated by the society MacLeod depicts – which is not too far from our own.

Everything rolls along merrily, MacLeod’s characters are entirely believable and the story’s internal logic holds water. Intrusion is not perhaps quite up there with MacLeod’s best but it’s still well written, entertaining and thought-provoking.

BSFA Awards

I’ve now read four of the five short-listed novels – the first time I’ve ever managed such a feat before the vote. While it is so much easier to find books in these internet days I did make a conscious effort this time. My reviews of these five are in the previous post plus here, here and here. It’s probably the one I’ve missed (Zoo City by Lauren Beukes) that will win now.

The nominations for Best Art are to my mind profoundly uninspiring except perhaps the spaceship by Andy Bigwood on the cover of Conflicts.

As to the short stories: the BSFA booklet has been devoured and here are my thoughts.

Flying In The Face Of God by Nina Allan.

The Kushnev drain is a(n unexplained) treatment that allows deep space expeditions to be undertaken more easily. Viewpoint character Anita, a film-maker whose mother was murdered in an anti-space-exploration terrorist attack when she was months old, is in love with Rachel, a recipient of the Kushnev drain who is about to set off into space. Rachel’s boyfriend, Serge, has moved on already.

The Science Fiction in this story is peripheral, being only the mentions of the Kushnev drain and space travel. Apart from that it’s … well, nothing much really.

At the level of the writing, an apparent change of viewpoint character in paragraph 1 (and 2) brought me to a shuddering stop in paragraph 3. Throughout, there is a high degree of info dumping. Tenses within the flashbacks are not precise enough making keeping track of things difficult. Anita’s grandmother features for no good plot reason that I could see. None of the characters displays much psychological depth.

As a result I found this story to be a bit incoherent. And nothing happens.

The Shipmaker by Aliette De Bodard

In a Chinese dominated future culture the shipmaker of the title is in charge of designing a spaceship – on principles that appear to relate to or derive from feng shui. The ship is to be piloted by a flesh and electronic hybrid Mind, gestated in the womb of a volunteer, the mechanics of which process are not laid out. The birth-mother turns up early and throws the delicately balanced design process into confusion. The culture is sketched efficiently and the characters’ problems are believable enough.

This is a proper story with forward movement and motivated characters but with an ending that is perhaps too glib.

The Things by Peter Watts

This story is told from the point of view of an alien, who has always heretofore been able to meld with and assimilate to other lifeforms, and is capable of warding off entropy. The creature’s offshoots have survived a crash and are trying to come to communion with the human members of an Antarctic expedition who come to realise its presence and resist it. Its gradual understanding of the singular nature of human existence, that we have brains – which it regards as a form of cancer – that we die; is well handled.

Again, this is a story, but due to its nature the humans it depicts are never more than names. The alien, however, is as real as you could wish. The last sentence is a little intense, though, not to say unsavoury.

Arrhythmia by Neil Williamson

In a Britain which is reminiscent of the early- to mid-20th century with concomitant working practices and social attitudes yet still has room for Top Of The Pops, Steve whiles away his days at the factory and yearns for the company of Sandra, who is sometimes assigned to work alongside him.

The factory runs to the tune of the Governor. Literally. The assembly line moves in time with piped music – as if Music While You Work was a control mechanism. In fact so suffused with music is this story it even begins with an anacrusis.

The key event is when Sandra gives Steve a copy of a vinyl single by the singer Arrythmia, whose iconoclastic attitude encourages rebelliousness.

As I almost said in my review of the anthology it came from, Music For Another World, this story could perhaps have been titled 1984: The Musical. Arrythmia doesn’t suffer too much by that comparison.

The Restoration Game by Ken Macleod

Orbit, 2010. 303 p.

MacLeod’s last novel had, as well as the usual SF, elements of the police procedural to it, not to mention a setting which featured Edinburgh heavily. In this book he mixes SF with the espionage thriller and makes an excellent fist of the spy novel aspect. Is he thinking of moving away from the genre?

In the one time Caucasian Autonomous Region of Krassnia, one of those strange enclaves of the former Soviet Union where ethnic strife both within it and with its neighbours was just waiting to break out when that state disintegrated, there is a mountain which hides a secret. A secret which when filmed in 1952 put the fear of God into Stalin and Beria. Krassnia has for centuries been divided between its habitual rulers the Vrai and the underling Krassnars. The mountain is said to hold the secret of the red-haired Vrai and bad things happen to ordinary Krassnars who venture there. (I pondered the significance of vrai being the French word for true but couldn’t work out if there was any.)

Despite her being a US citizen currently living in Edinburgh – again a welcome setting for part of a MacLeod novel – Luciane Stone’s family has been tangled up in Krassnian affairs (the word is apposite) for four generations; indeed she was born and schooled there. In her job with an Edinburgh computer game company she has incorporated almost all the Krassnian folklore that she learned at her mother’s knee into their latest project “Dark Britannia.” Cue much speculation regarding simulations and simulacra. Another game project in hand is of a timeline where the Spartacus revolt in ancient Rome was not crushed. As a consequence Rome did not fall in the fifth century and the industrial revolution occurred much earlier than in Lucy’s world. The Romans reach Mars.

When the call comes from her mother to produce a version of “Dark Britannia” specifically aimed at the Krassnian market Lucy becomes embroiled in all the shenanigans you might expect in a spy/thriller story. As this scenario demands, Lucy does of course ascend the mountain, where she encounters a strangeness illuminating the nature of reality.

While fizzing with speculation, The Restoration Game blends the SF and spy elements a little awkwardly, with the more down to earth sequences fully realised and the fantastical standing somewhat aloof from them – at times appearing almost as an add-on. Nevertheless MacLeod’s prose enables the book to speed by. It is a page turner.

My reservations about the central tenet of the main SF element constitute a spoiler. Do not read on if you wish to avoid this. Get yourself the book instead. It’s a very entertaining read.

SPOILER
SPOILER

SPOILER

The SF element of The Restoration Game turns on the Earth of Lucy Stone, our Earth, being a simulation, run by Synthetic Psyches in a universe in which the Romans did reach Mars.

While this is an acceptable speculation and characters in such a simulation would “feel” (or experience, if you will) in a similar way to “real” people and would not be able to tell the difference – unless subject to the sort of evidence that The Restoration Game postulates – it is dangerously close to being “all a dream.” In dreams, of course, logic and internal consistency are not necessarily strong suits and a story set within one can be rendered meaningless.

Now, MacLeod’s simulated world definitely does not lack logic nor internal consistency but there is a wider sense that if the characters we read about are merely (merely?) simulations why should we care about them?

This is a philosophical conundrum for any reader of fiction, however, since all fictional characters are, by definition, not real. Even those based on historical or actual people are not real in the sense that a living breathing human is.

In this regard, though, to make characters within a work of fiction actual simulations is possibly a step too far. Even if we inhabit the same simulation ourselves.

This Year’s BSFA Awards

This year’s BSFA Awards shortlist has been published.

Five novels have made it this year (I’ve read one) and four short stories (ditto,) five non-fiction pieces and six art works.

I didn’t make the list with Osmotic Pressure (I doubt I was nominated by anyone) but
I’ll look forward to reading the shorts I’ve missed so far: I assume the BSFA will send them out in a booklet as in the past two years. They’ll all likely be available on the web soon I should think – if not already.

Small Nuclear War? No Problem!

The launch for Ken Macleod’s new novel (not actually on sale till July) went well.

As well as Ken, Charles Stross and Andrew J Wilson gave readings and there was then a question and answer session for the three panellists.

The subjects discussed were what do you think might go wrong next (ie what disasters/problems might be coming soon) and, interestingly, what will go right?

The demise of newspapers and the subsequent loss of democratic oversight of government, enhanced rubbishing of science and the possibility of a new virus all entered the first category.

Reasons to be cheerful?

War kills fewer people as a percentage of the world population now than in any previous century and affluence is likely to increase. (Abject poverty is at its lowest percentage ever.)

This was the section where Ken raised the biggest laugh of the night when he opined (I paraphrase) that, all things considered, in the bigger scheme of things a few small nuclear wars wouldn’t be all that much to be bothered about.

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