The Corporation Wars: Insurgence,
(cover design by Bekki Guyatt)
This is the second book in Ken MacLeod’s absorbing new trilogy – the first volume, Insurgence, is reviewed here along with a wee report on Ken’s talk at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. In some trilogies, be they books, comics or movies, there can be a danger of a reduction in the tension and pacing, a softer middle between the excitement of the opening and the grand finale, the middle volume can sometimes suffer – I am glad to report that this is not the case here (to be honest I never anticipated any problem like that here, Ken is too skilled a scribe). Actually if anything the pace and tension crank up further, the plot deepens and becomes more complex as both individuals (digitally resurrected humans, now free intelligent robots and computer AIs) and groups (the freebots, the corporations and the competing political factions of the Reaction (‘Rax’) and The Acceleration (‘Axl’) seriously start scheming and count-scheming their own agendas.
Those choices, both group and individual, and the plans and machinations which go with them, the potential alliances and double-crosses, are the backbone of this second volume. The political belief systems of the Reaction and the Acceleration are explored in a lot more detail this time, and despite the fact their battle was on faraway Earth thousands of years ago, an Earth now free of that kind of political division and strife, these resurrected fighters (soldiers as they would have it, for the Cause, terrorists to most others) on this distant potential colony system seem determined to fall back into their old patterns for the most part.
Fighters on both sides here have something in common, as with opposing extremist factions throughout history – they are so sure they are in the right that they don’t care what harm they cause, they are ends justify the means types and have long ago forgotten – if they ever knew to begin with – that political thought and ideology should only be a tool used to try and make society better, to help people, not people made to serve the ideology. Some are starting to question this though – the most famous of these resurrected fighters, Carlos the Terrorist, is questioning everything, even more so as he finds himself among a large cadre of his fellow Axl activists, including an old flame who was the one who recruited him into the cause in the first place and set him on the road to many deaths caused at his hands, including his own.
She seems fixated on the old ideas, as if millennia hadn’t passed and society changed – like all true believers she is sure they are in the right and that gives them the right to force their views on others. Those among the Rax are similarly jockeying for power, and into this mix the local avatars of the corporations throw in their oars (and some of those, it seems, may not be the independent AIs they appear to be but may be compromised to either Rax or Axl sympathies). Carlos is not only questioning everything, including his own old allegiances and beliefs, he’s thinking about the freebots, about the changes in Earth society in the intervening centuries and he is also thinking more about what he actually wants, as an individual, not just as part of a faction, and about his own responsibility, and perhaps even thinking that this digital resurrection maybe shouldn’t be squandered, but seen as a chance to redeem himself.
This is not just a volume ruminating on competing extreme political ideologies however, or debating philosophies of free will, reality versus simulacra or the nature of sentience though. Oh no, there’s action here – plenty of action. Good, solid, sci-fi action, person to person and space combat to go along with the political and philosophical side of things. And it’s a great mix – we get to have our cake and eat it here, some solid, thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas but also some thrilling action and adventure. And after some of the political events of these last few months there are elements here which seem to take on new meanings to the reader, which shouldn’t be a surprise given Ken is a canny political observer, and of course like all the best science fiction this is as much about the here and now as it is the far future it depicts. Totally compelling, can’t wait for book three!