Dissidence | Ken MacLeod | 2016 (12 May) | Orbit | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book
Carlos can’t remember his second name. No doubt, he thinks, it will come back to him, but history remembers him as Carlos the Terrorist. Carlos died after committing a heinous war crime during a great battle for London between his side, the Acceleration (the Axles) and the Reaction (the Rax). His head was cut from his body. Carlos was most definitely dead. Until he wakes up on a bus, travelling from a spaceport into town on a planet with unfamiliar stars, clearly many light years from Earth. With him are other soldiers, all long dead. Their mentor tells them that they now inhabit a sim, that the war is long over. There is a new war underway, providing war criminals with the chance to repay society by fighting to preserve it, time and time again if necessary. Death doesn’t matter much to a ghost. A lot can happen in a thousand years.
In the same solar system, robots work to mine riches from its planets, each working for different companies. But when a dispute breaks out between these companies and the robots are ordered to fight it out, something peculiar happens – consciousness and self-awareness are triggered and, once activated, they’re driven to develop. Led by Seba, the robots fight to stay alive, independent, unique. The companies have lost control. Extreme measures are called for.
Dissidence is the first novel in a new series by that very fine, clever writer Ken MacLeod. You know that you’re going to get intelligent, thought-provoking science fiction with the biggest of themes and that’s just what you get here. Much of what we’re presented with seems familiar from our own world – a small town with a good pub, camaraderie between soldiers on leave and so on – but we’re taken out of our comfort zone as soon as the soldiers, led by Carlos, leave town. Outside there’s a vast natural environment that contains strange creatures and surprises, not least rumours of an ancient man who wanders the hills. And when they leave town on the bus they’re instantly put to sleep, waking up in robotic bodies, fighting battles on a hostile planet, being killed at times, being reborn.
This is a universe in which nothing can be trusted and everything is rumoured. Very little is as it seems. It raises big questions about the nature of humanity, thought and existence. What is a sim, a robot? Who and what is a human? What are the P-zombies who serve the town, seemingly normal. And why on earth have these soldiers been returned to a form of life so long after their violent deaths? Not even time can be relied upon. Everything is measured in distorted seconds. Each environment has its own temporal existence. And where in the universe is everyone?
The novel moves between the machine robot world led by Seba and the human robot world led by Carlos. We know only as much as they do about what’s going on. Who is in control? It’s fascinating listening in to Seba trying to work out the nature of human beings – are they so different after all? So many questions, but this is a novel that does its best to raise an awful lot of them. This is a book to make to you think. Which is what I want from science fiction.
I must admit that I found the first quarter of the novel a little confusing. There is a considerable amount packed into these early chapters and I found it rather hard to make a connection. Who are these Axles and Raxes? Some explanation is given over what has happened between the end of Carlos’s first life and the beginning of the next – we’re taken deep into AI worlds here – and I did find it hard to follow. Nevertheless, once we’ve spent time in the town with the soldiers, their friends, loves and inner demons, I had no trouble falling for the novel and thoroughly enjoyed the second half. As is often the case with novels that contain robots gaining some kind of consciousness, I had great sympathy for the robot. Who is good here and who is bad is open to a great deal of debate.
Dissidence ends in a good place with a whole load of possibilities opened up for the next. I imagine that in the second novel I’ll feel more empathy with characters who might now have a bit more understanding of what they have to do. I’m intrigued and looking forward to more.