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, rendered in chevron brackets as opposed to normal quote marks, can be a little reminiscent of Dalek in its terseness and detached vocabulary (though admittedly, “Shut up,” 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”?)

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