It is difficult to know where to start when reviewing “The Corporation Wars: Dissidence”, part I of The Corporation Wars trilogy by Ken MacLeod, as itIt is difficult to know where to start when reviewing “The Corporation Wars: Dissidence”, part I of The Corporation Wars trilogy by Ken MacLeod, as it contains a wide range of themes, ideas and story threads.
I suppose I will start by saying that I enjoyed it very much. It is a story that one can enjoy without delving into the layers of meaning and allegory that Ken has embedded in the book. It is very much a setting the scene novel for the trilogy. One could read it as a standalone novel but one would have to then live with the yearning for more that this volume leaves the reader with. The next edition is due for release in December, 2016 and I will be reading it as soon as it comes out.
I have always believed in the ideas (and I do not know who came up with them first – citations welcome if you know their origin) that “to write the truth one should write fiction”, and, “to write about the present one should write Science Fiction”. (Please forgive the paraphrasing.) It is my belief that these two ideas are very applicable to Ken’s writing. I also believe that Orwell’s idea that “whoever controls the present controls history, and whoever controls history controls the future,” (Again, apologies for paraphrasing but at least I know whose idea this one was.) is present in “The Corporation Wars: Dissidence” (I will just call it “Dissidence” from here on in.). (Disclaimer: The statements in this paragraph represent my own perceptions and inferences rather than knowledge based on any comments or statements by Ken MacLeod. The novel is only a story; a work of fiction; Science Fiction, in fact.)
The main story is about a dispute between two corporations. That sounds simple enough and possibly even boring until one learns that the dispute is triggered by a territorial dispute brought about by two robots arguing over the territorial rights of their respective corporations, on a moon, around a planet, some 23 light years from Earth. These robots were no ordinary robots. They had just developed self-awareness, but that is another story thread, one that leads in the direction of self-determination and freedom, and many, many other ideas along that road.
Another aspect of the novel is automation. The recent non-fiction book, "The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment" (2015) by Martin Ford, describes the increased automation of jobs at all levels, and the way technology globalises the competition for the remaining high value jobs that still require humans to be in the role. This idea is part of the back story for “Dissidence”. One of Ken's characters considers thoughts prevalent at the end of the twenty-first century with the words:
“The only celebrity worth striving for was for the whole human race to become world famous. The only Utopia worth dreaming of was for everyone in the world to have First World Problems.
….Let it rip, let it run wild until full automation created full unemployment and confronted everyone with the choice to get on with the real work, and off the treadmill of fake work and make-work to pay the debt to buy the goods to make the make-work feel worthwhile and the exhausted, empty time tagged as leisure pass painlessly enough…”
“Dissidence” takes place in a world where the legal firms are AIs (Artificial Intelligences), legal actions (writs, etc…), fly back and forward with the same speed as the buy and sell transactions that were executed by the automated stock exchange trading systems, and that exacerbated the fall of share values during stock market crashes in the dot-bomb crash and subsequent market disasters. It is a world where nobody can be sure what is true and what is false; who is telling the truth and who is telling untruths, either knowingly or through their own ignorance or gullibility; or whether the world one is in is real or a simulation.
Equality is another topic under the surface in “Dissidence”. The main characters are human, in origin, as opposed to virtual constructs, or full blown AIs, or consciousnesses that came into existence through the occurrence of spontaneous self-awareness. Questions of self and being are obvious consequences of this mix of beings, if that word can be used for entities that exist in the virtual world, albeit in real world hardware constructed at the behest of AIs and other virtual beings. Even the human minds are reinstated instances of people from the long distant past, or so we are told.
Ken MacLeod has incorporated (if you excuse the pun) one company’s AI avatar in the person of John Locke, a philosopher whose work included much consideration of the concept of self. This is very apropos given the nature of virtually (another pun) every character in this story. It begs the question, “What is life?”
As I was trying to gather my thoughts for this review I jotted down a list of topics that I found in the pages of the novel. I present the list below:
Politics Philosophy Technology Love Loss Economics Exploitation Loyalty Deception Betrayal Manipulation What is life? Sentience/self determination Free will Plausible deniability
I will not pretend to have fathomed all the layers of meaning, philosophical conundrums, and political tenets that have been included in this novel (knowingly or otherwise) by the author, but I will claim to have found the work thought provoking, pertinent to today’s political, economic/commercial, and technological trends, and a great read. The main story is entertaining, exciting and intriguing. All in all, a very worthwhile read that has me on the edge of my seat for the next exciting episode. It also has me wondering if the reality that Ken has established in this first novel of the trilogy will continue to be the reality in the subsequent books. ...more