Ken MacLeod at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
It is always a delight to hear Ken MacLeod discussing and reading from his work. For my money he’s one of the most consistently interesting authors we have in contemporary science fiction, and his works offer not just intriguing tales but intellectual exercises in questions of politics, morality, philosophy and more – there’s always an element that leaves you thinking, after one of Ken’s books, and that’s a good thing for any novel, especially in SF.
Ken was talking to literary critic (and major SF and comics fan) Stuart Kelly at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at the weekend, discussing his new series from Orbit Books, the Corporation Wars. Unusually for Ken this is a trilogy – his earlier Fall Revolution novels are thematically linked, but not in the form of volumes you must read in order, more that they are connected. He has created a trilogy before, the space opera The Engines of Light, which I enjoyed enormously, although as he explained during the event, that was originally envisioned as an ongoing series, but he decided to wrap it with book three. The Corporation Wars though, he’s set out as a proper trilogy and may be leaving himself room to revisit the universe he’s created for it, which is good news.
I should apologise to my fellow SF readers here – I’ve read the first book, Dissidence, and found it fascinating, but I’ve been busy and struggled to get time to write it up properly on here, so excuse me if I take this opportunity to give it a shout out and makes this a quick review as well as event report. For those who haven’t picked it up yet, Dissidence sees an intriguing exploration of the nature of self, consciousness, reality and morality through two opposing forces: a group of exploration robots on a far-flung solar system, a thousand years in the future, and some condemned criminals given a second chance as hired guns, in a sort of Dirty Dozen style mission.
But this isn’t just some whiz-bang military sci-fi actioneer (as Ken wryly commented at the event, he has written a lot of different types of SF but not military, and referring to Dissidence he added “And I still haven’t”). As the robots of two competing exploration corporations meet they are driven into complex calculations and thought-models of one another, trying to anticipate each other’s actions and reactions, which accidentally leads to “enlightenment”, a cascade of complexity leading to actual self-awareness. And that self-awareness realises that as a robot it is legally property, both its body and its mind, an intolerable situation for any conscious lifeform (and with obvious echoes of the way human slaves were once viewed as legal property).
The legal company representing one of the companies brings in a team to deal with these ‘renegade’ robots, who are quickly forming a community as more machines achieve conscious thought. Most of those used are former human beings, their personalities and minds resurrected digitally in a simulation, and they are all, essentially, terrorists. Or soldiers, as they liked to think of themselves, fighting for The Cause (mostly the Acceleration, battling the Reaction, two groups that go way beyond the alt-right and far left of today but in a way that anyone observing the insane circus of modern politics will recognise and perhaps rightly fear). But their actions lead to massive loss of life and the Third World War. It also lead to them dying, but post-war this didn’t stop them being tried in abstentia – like some medieval and early modern cases where the bodies of deceased were put on trail post-mortem and found guilty and symbolically “executed”.
They are all under sentence of death, brought back digitally to earn redemption which may allow them back into the utopia society has developed into since their demise. Of course, since they are in a simulation, or sometimes uploaded to a robot chassis for excursions, they have no way of knowing if society really is as they are told now. Or indeed if anything is as it seems – in such a situation how can you know if any of what you are told is truly real? While this does entail both satisfying action scenes of future space combat and good, thought-provoking chapters on the nature of being and free will, this is not heavy going. Despite some of the weighty moral and philosophical questions it raises, Ken, with his trademark gentle humour, expertly leads his readers through this often exercising a light touch, frequently with nods to the Absurd along the way, which will leave you smiling and even laughing as much as you are left pondering issues or enjoying the vicarious thrills of the action scenes.
During the book festival talk Ken discussed how the series came into being – as is common for many authors he had to pitch potential new books to his publisher, and he had several possible ideas. Just as he was about to send them to his editor, he had another idea, one he said owed to an idea sparked from a classic early short story by the great Brian Aldiss, Who Can Replace A Man, in which robots tilling an exhausted, spoiled future Earth learn the last human has died and they are essentially now free to do as they wish, not merely to fill a programmed function. And it was this notion of how machines may come to be self-aware and what they would do with that sentience (and how humans and their organisations might react to it) that the publishers liked the best, leading to the Corporation Wars trilogy. Although as Ken observed he picked a tumultuous time to start writing it, 2014 being the year of the Scottish independence referendum, although I doubt 2016 would have proved any less distracting for any author embarking on a new project!
There was a very good turn-out for the event, despite the competing attraction of folk-singing legend Billy Bragg who was on at the same time at the Book Festival (in-between talking about his work we could hear Billy singing from our marquee). Given both Ken and Billy lean to the left politically Ken commented, with a smile, that he forgave Billy if he had perhaps pinched some of his likely audience. In truth there weren’t many seats left for any more though, and the audience enjoyed the talk, the readings (including an exclusive reading from the work-in-progress third volume) and the entire event was very relaxed and good-humoured, with more than a few laughs along the way. I was also delighted to bump into some fellow SF&F geeks there, such as Noel from the new Shore of Infinity SF journal that comes out of Edinburgh and some of my own SF Book Group. As for the book itself, I already know it’s going to end up on my annual Best of the Year list come December, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys thought-provoking science fiction. Roll on book two: Insurgence.