Orbit | 2016 (1 December) | 308p | Review copy | Buy the book
Insurgence is the second novel in Ken MacLeod’s science fiction trilogy The Corporation Wars and it follows hot on the heels of Dissidence. You need to have read Dissidence before Insurgence and this review assumes you’ve done just that.
Many light years from Earth and a thousand years in the future, corporations fight for contol of a planet and its orbiting moons. Rich in resources, these moons are covered in busy robots which work for rival organisatons that patrol the solar system in space stations or modules and represent different interests on Earth. And all went well until some of the robots were asked to do harm to others of their kind. This resulted in a number of the robots achieving a level of self-consciousness and awareness that has continued to spread. To the Corporations this was a declaration of war and when their lawyers – beamed across to the robots as holograms in suits – failed to calm the newly militant and independent robots, the soldiers were sent in.
But these are no ordinary soldiers. So far from Earth, these fighters have no bodies of their own. They simply comprise the consciousness of long dead warriors, rebooted into mechanoid form. But when theyre not fighting, or if they’re ‘killed’ in action, they are returned to the modules where they live a virtual existence, in human form, on a planet-like world, where time itself ticks at a different pace. The most famous of these soldiers is known as Carlos the Terrorist, a name given to him for the outrages he allegedly committed in the 21st century. But we all know now that the past cannot be trusted. So far away from Earth and human time, nothing exists except the fight between corporations, and between corporations and sentient robots. Reality itself is not to be relied upon.
Insurgence takes us to a very strange place where very little is as it seems, except perhaps for the robots themselves, who have learned that if anyone or anything has rights to this solar system it’s them. The robots face a steep learning curve as they are confronted by the politics of corporations that are separated from an origin that they continue to emulate. Their mission is to make the planet habitable for humanity but everything here questions the nature of what humanity is.
Carlos and other virtual human fighters like him are themselves divided – remnant ideology from ancient wars continues to pit one module against another. And yet each of these individuals represents a life and, despite their extraordinary circumstances, they still have feelings for one another – they go to the pub, they make love, they walk along the beach. They still live in a place that gives them the comfort of home, something to fight for. But is this ultimately what they really want?
Ken MacLeod is such a fine writer, a master of clever science fiction. There is so much here to make the reader think but there are also moments that are wondrous. There’s a scene early on when one of the fighters wakes up only to find himself in an environment without colour. He has become a line drawing, nothing more. The concept of time is brilliantly treated. The characters are difficult to warm to, with the exception of Carlos, but that’s hardly susprising. Rather oddly, though, I was drawn to the robot Baser. He, or it, more than anyone or anything, undergoes change, physical and mental, and I loved watching it. In the so-called human world he is frightening but in his own world, the real world, he is inspiring and brave. One senses, though, that his need to trust someone could be his undoing.
I think it would be a benefit to read Insurgence as soon after Dissidence as possible. Insurgence allows the reader little time to catch up. It’s been a few months since I read Dissidence and so I did feel a little lost at the beginning. There are a lot of characters to follow and also some complicated politics but this did straighten out after a few chapters and I stopped worrying about being confused and focused on the larger picture.
Insurgence is a strong middle novel and points to an intriguing conclusion in next year’s Emergence. Both robots and human mechanisms have outgrown their original confines and the future looks fascinating, albeit as dangerous and conflicted as ever. I’m particularly looking forward to discovering what lies ahead on that superhabitable planet, which, in reality, seems to be anything but habitable.
I must mention that Insurgence is a stunning small hardback – the most beautiful looking book I’ve read this year.