In the first instalment of a trilogy, Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod proves that depth and profundity can exist in a parallel universe, writes Stuart Kelly
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence by Ken MacLeod | Orbit, £12.99
Ken MacLeod is usually described as a writer of science fiction. I think he might be better understood as one of the finest philosophical and political novelists we have. That said, his excellent new novel does concern – as he writes – “the mercenary ghost of a dead cyborg terrorist haunting a killer robot”.
On SH-17, an exomoon targeted for terraforming in the future, a humble robot develops sentience. This new consciousness soon spreads. The companies which are developing the exploration suddenly have a problem, as their property has declared itself a person. So they do what companies do, and go to war and lawyers. Carlos was a human, in a period before “The Direction” provided a unified human government. He was involved in a conflict between “The Acceleration”, a movement which believed that “the only utopia worth dreaming of was for everyone in the world to have First World problems” – and that they must “burn through capitalism, to get through that unavoidable stage as soon as possible” – and its ideological nemesis, “The Reaction”, “the ultimate counter-revolution”. Although he has the mild inconvenience of being dead, his mind has been technologically preserved and brought into a virtual reality alongside various other combatants, because the only weapon effective against the new machine intelligences is old-fashioned human cunning, even if they are uploaded into new, sleek, tiny, metal bodies. I would defy any reader to decide which side should be given the white hats and which the black ones in this scenario.
With the exception of Aesop’s Fables, and maybe the Moomins, I doubt I have enjoyed so much a novel in which none of the characters, at some level, is actually a human. In part, this is because MacLeod constantly questions what it means to be conscious, embodied individual or human. As the robots explore their environment and their history they put the question succinctly. “<The companies are legal persons,> said Lagon. <So they are not real persons,> replied Pintre.” The key distinction is “<therefore the criterion for persons cannot be consciousness>”. The companies – corporations in another neat and important pun – are bodiless persons. The robots, and the humans, have minds that can extend beyond their bodies. All this is before we get on to the philosophical zombies and the soap operas based on Turing; with the fundamental question: if you can’t tell if something isn’t human – or conscious – does that necessarily make it so? The robots are, before sentience, slaves; are the humans any more free?
This is all deep and profound stuff. But hey! There are also fantastic fights and deep conspiracies and moral dilemmas and strange new worlds, both virtual and real (maybe). MacLeod’s great skill – as in works like The Execution Channel, Newton’s Wake, The Night Sessions and Intrusion – is to marry propulsive plot to philosophical speculation. He has written about artificiality beforehand, both in terms of artificial intelligences and the possibility we live in a constructed, artificial environment. He has given us robotic terrorists with an eye on space beforehand, and extrapolations of contemporary politics. But this – the first part of a trilogy – unites his ideas in their most accessible and joyous form. One can’t help but admire the chutzpah of a novel that begins “Carlos the Terrorist did not expect to die that day”; nor one that makes jokes about Marcel Proust at the same time as scouring naïve ideas. The novel seems as much a puzzle box as a jack-in-the-box.
Big ideas and a knack with narrative still would not add up to such a compelling and complicated work. The very best parts of this are the actual writing about what it might be like not to be like a human being at all. The imaginative leaps into what it’s like to be a robot, or a human consciousness that inhabits an avatar, are done beautifully. Even things like the passage of time – something we take for granted in fiction, which is mostly linear – become estranged. Battles last seconds and eternity is over in a minute.
There is a strange kind of poetry in describing this shifting haar of identities. One character mentions that “you suddenly notice you can’t smell the sun” after retreating from their enhancement. At another moment a different character reflects “If he’d had eyes, it would have been a blink”. There is something here reminiscent of Thomas Nagel’s famous thought experiment “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” – and given the “bat-oids” that flit through the air in what might be the humans’ new home, it seems like another sly wink.
From Gulliver’s Travels to War Of The Worlds science fiction has looked at possibilities that the realist novel has eschewed. MacLeod is putting the moral, intellectual and political seriousness of science fiction back centre stage. Although I lack the predictive capacities of an AI, I would have to adjust the parameters of my perception if this did not make it on to prize lists.