THE CORPORATION WARS by Ken MacLeod
My preference is to review the books in a series Individually, but I find myself so busy at the moment that I don’t have much time for writing reviews. And in the case of THE CORPORATION WARS by Ken MacLeod, I don’t feel that there’s much distinction between the individual novels and it makes sense to review the series as a whole.
THE CORPORATION WARS is a trilogy that consists of the books Dissidence, Insurgence, and Emergence. The story is set in the far future when Earth-based prospecting corporations vie for interstellar resources and use robots, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality two mine planets and fight wars.
At the beginning of book 1, Dissidence, we meet Carlos, a terrorist who fought and died for his company a thousand years ago during the last World War. When he awakens in a virtual reality environment, he discovers that his mind has been revived so that he can embody robots and continue to fight for the Direction, a corporate or political entity that he’s not familiar with. Every time he dies, he wakes up again in the same simulation and is sent against the Direction’s enemies again and again.
With him are other famous fighters who have been similarly revived. Together they are fighting a remote war against a planet of robots that used to work for a mining corporation but have become sentient, autonomous, and rebellious. The revived humans are tasked with wiping out the rogue robots without destroying the resources they’ve accumulated on the planet.
When not training and fighting, Carlos and his comrades live a seemingly normal life in the Direction’s simulation, hanging out in the local tavern and experiencing the same kinds of extracurricular activities that most humans enjoy. They eat, drink, socialize, and pair up.
After re-capping the events that occurred in the previous books, Insurgence and Emergence continue to detail the training, battles, and down-time that Carlos and his team experience. Gradually we learn of the political factions that existed on Earth before Carlos died (as their names suggest, the Acceleration were progressive while the Reaction was reactionary) and, with Carlos, we begin to piece together the current political climate and the goals and motives of its actors. Other than the fighting, the simulation is pleasant, so it seems that the Direction wants to keep its warriors happy. But when some of them start to become curious about their job and their employer, not all of them are happy with the discoveries they make. Motives and loyalties are not always clear and, eventually, Carlos and his comrades have to decide what and who they want to fight for.
Things I really liked about THE CORPORATION WARS:
I loved the description of how the robots became conscious. The biggest question in neuroscience these days is how the human brain differs from a computer, or how consciousness could emerge from neural connections. MacLeod’s explanation is ingenious and funny. It left an impression on me and I think it’s going to stick with me forever.
I love the idea of brains existing in a computer simulation. This is not a new idea, of course, but MacLeod explores this thoroughly during the three novels and his characters, who know they’re in a sim, have plenty of time to experience and philosophize about their situation. MacLeod does some clever and entertaining things with the simulations.
On the other side, the robots are also exploring and philosophizing about their situation. They are consciousness machines who used to be servants but now have free will. Their discussion of the legal ramifications is interesting and amusing. And, of course, this leads some of the human characters to wonder about the ethics of killing a conscious being and it makes the reader consider what it means to be human. This is another common idea in science fiction, but MacLeod’s twist on it — the contrast between robots who have become conscious and humans whose bodies are actually dead — gives it a new spin. I loved the robots (who call themselves the Freebots). They are witty, charming, and adorable.
Things I didn’t like about THE CORPORATION WARS:
Unfortunately, the Freebots are the only characters I liked in the entire trilogy. Most of the human characters are cold and unpleasant. This may have been purposeful, to contrast with the robots, but it’s hard to love a book whose humans you don’t like.
The second and third books do a lot of recapping of the plot of the previous books, the pace is slow, and there’s quite a bit of unnecessary filler. For example, some of the arguments and discussions occur multiple times. I got tired of this.
MacLeod used the term “negative reinforcement” incorrectly. This occurs dozens of times throughout the trilogy (it’s one of the main ways the robots learn) and it drove me nuts. Negative reinforcement versus punishment is not an easy concept, but I’d expect MacLeod to get it right.
In summary: The premise of THE CORPORATION WARS is fun, interesting, and smart, but the story is dull. It just develops too slowly and all of the cool clever intelligent stuff gets drowned out by too much repetitive narrative and dialogue. I really liked the bones of this story but not the execution. It should have been condensed down to one book.
I listened to the audiobook version of THE CORPORATION WARS which was produced by Hachette Audio and narrated by Peter Kenny. Kenny is one of my favorite narrators — he’s always spot-on. I might not have gotten through the entire trilogy if it hadn’t been for Kenny’s excellent performance.