Fight the power

SFX - - Reviews - Jonathan Wright

re­leased 12 May 336 pages | Hard­back/ ebook Author Ken MacLeod Pub­lisher Or­bit Books

Like a painter look­ing to add new colours to his pal­ette, Ken MacLeod’s re­cent nov­els have seen him fus­ing SF with other gen­res. De­scent, for ex­am­ple, fea­tured both fly­ing saucers and a bloke- lit nar­ra­tive that could have been writ­ten by Nick Hornby.

With Dis­si­dence, though, the first part of new tril­ogy The Cor­po­ra­tion Wars, he’s firmly back in SF ter­ri­tory, with a space opera that imag­ines hu­man­ity’s ex­pan­sion into space. Or, more pre­cisely, a kind of pre- ex­pan­sion phase where ro­bots and AIs pre­pare exo- plan­ets for coloni­sa­tion.

Ex­cept some­thing goes awry light years from Earth and some of the ex­ploratory ro­bots be­come self- aware. To counter this, world govern­ment The Di­rec­tion sends out com­bat ro­bots con­trolled by the con­scious­nesses of long- dead sol­diers. Th­ese in­clude Car­los the Ter­ror­ist, who per­ished years pre­vi­ously and is sur­prised to wake up in a vir­tual re­al­ity where he’s trained for what lies ahead.

The novel is rooted in a fa­mil­iar trope of con­tem­po­rary SF, the idea of ma­chine con­scious­ness out­strip­ping hu­man­ity – what good is it ex­plor­ing the uni­verse if ma­chines get there first? – yet MacLeod is far too sub­tle a writer to let this be a prob­lem. The plot is as much driven by hu­man pol­i­tics as the ro­bots’ bid for free­dom, mean­ing the strug­gles for pri­macy aren’t just be­tween man and ma­chine, but dif­fer­ent fac­tions.

Less pos­i­tively, there’s the odd info dump con­ver­sa­tion, but there’s a caveat here. Dis­si­dence is a novel that’s di­rect yet still brims with ideas, pol­i­tics and mem­o­rable char­ac­ters, and if the odd bit of ex­po­si­tion keeps things mov­ing with the pace of an air­port thriller, let’s not grum­ble. Rather, let’s her­ald MacLeod’s most en­ter­tain­ing novel to date. All that time adding new colours to the pal­ette has been well spent.

MacLeod’s most en­ter­tain­ing novel

MacLeod says the Cor­po­ra­tion Wars books form “a very tightly linked tril­ogy” in­tended to be “read as a very long novel”.

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