Book review: The Corporation Wars: Emergence by Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod
Ken MacLeod
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So we get to the end, and the possibility of beginnings. In the first two volumes of Ken MacLeod’s ambitious sci-fi series we have seen, initially, the stirrings of consciousness among robots sent to terraform and asset-strip extraterrestrial places. When the global government becomes aware of this development, they send in a crack squad to quell the awakening: the minds of terrorists from a former war, kept in stasis and uploaded into their own miniature and cybernetic bodies, have the future of an alternate reality paradise dangled before them as long as they do what they’re told.

The second book was even more winkingly comical, with a few digs at the transhumanist idea of perpetual leisure turned into a bad Dungeons and Dragons game: Nerdistan, not Elysium. It also filled in more of the backstory. The final war had been between the Acceleration, who wanted to rush through capitalism like a banker rushes through cocaine to reach a socialist utopia, and the Reaction, or Rax, which thought the best way forward was to go back and the best way to make humanity great again was to reset the clock to the Middle Ages.

There is a lot of comedy in MacLeod’s work, even in this finale where the reader is taught, precisely, that the Rax – the evil space Nazis – are actually just plain evil and not some conceit to propel the plot. They really do believe all the worst things you might think. There is still comedy – I laughed out loud at a reference to Dad’s Army on page 15, even as I shuddered that the comedy came from a group of fundamentalist Hitlerites.

One of the strengths of these books has been the subtle differentiation between the artificial intelligences and the uploaded human consciousnesses. It becomes drastic in this instalment, especially when the robots realise that if they die, they do cease to exist; whereas when the “humans” expire, they are reincarnated in their own virtual afterlife. It is a series which takes death seriously in an age when we do not. The torture of one of the AIs is absolutely hideous, in that there is peril for the sufferer and no fear for the sadist.

At the same time, MacLeod introduces a new plot strand. The preceding volume concluded with a crash landing on the planet destined for future colonisation. But there was something already there on SH-0, something alien. MacLeod, like his friend, the late Iain Banks, is very good at imagining aliens as alien. His are curious, careful, invasive and protective. The reader cannot really visualise them, or impute their reasons. They will – without giving too much away – teach humanity what it means to be in the real rather than the virtual. Despite his Calvinist pessimism, MacLeod shows a glimmer of humanist optimism when he describes our possible futures. There is also a shade of Stanislaw Lem’s classic Solaris in the unspeakable, dreadful and unthinkable otherness.

The title of the series has always been a pun – on the Latin corpore, meaning body. The digital ghosts are embodied in their tiny robot fighting machines. The sentient machines only become persons to themselves when they incorporate into their own “corporation”, an entity which has legal personhood but lacks a human body. (There is, as one might expect, some satire on the legal wheeler-dealing this involves and the stalling the AIs deploy). When the representatives of Earth’s government, the Direction, finally turn up, they do so with both might and the law.

There is much to enjoy here – intellectually, emotionally, metaphysically and especially if you like seeing undead robot Nazis getting their butts kicked, both cerebrally and actually. The series, released over 18 months, is a new form of publishing – Jeff VanderMeer produced his trilogy in the same fashion – and it works rather well. We get enough tang to want the next, but patience isn’t worn thin by a long wait. Like the recent series of Twin Peaks, this is a single work released in instalments. I hope they eventually publish it in a single volume.

The book also comes with a kind of trailer line: in this case “the future is not ours”. This is central to MacLeod’s vision. Upright apes against aliens, robots and cyber-wraiths seems an unlikely proposition indeed, and yet the book ends up fundamentally endorsing, if not the human, then human values. What is good, what is true, what is just? These questions might be asked by things other than humans.

I know he will hate the suggestion, but I think of MacLeod as one of our most profoundly religious novelists, questioning humanity, interrogating ethics, speculating about the future. Even the title of this finale, Emergence, is slyly hopeful. Yes, at the outset, the sleeper cells of the digital SS have emerged, but by the end, goodness, openness and truthfulness have materialised from the strangest of places. MacLeod pits the vision of Thomas Hobbes – we club together because life is nasty, brutish and short – against a Marxist ideal – that we come together because we are stronger together. His idealism is more than admirable.

*The Corporation Wars: Emergence by Ken MacLeod, Orbit, £14.99