Posts Tagged ‘Artificial Intelligence’

(Insurgence by Ken Macleod front coverThe Corporation Wars: Insurgence, by Ken Macleod. Orbit, 2016, 331 pp., $9.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Insurgence, the brand new second installment in Ken Macleod’s Corporation Wars trilogy, resolves issues left hanging in the first book, Dissidence.

Insurgence settles the matter of what’s real and what’s virtual in the Corporation Wars universe, and also clearly reveals the nature of one of the two antagonistic political factions, the Reaction, or Rax. They’re essentially the alt-right: racist, abusive, self-seeking propertarians who regard other people as “potential slaves.” (As in Dissidence, there’s frustratingly little in Insurgence on the nature of the Rax’s opponents, the Acceleration, or Axle.)

Like its predecessor, Insurgence is a page-turner, akin to what another reviewer termed an “airport bookshop thriller.” There’s enough intrigue and more than enough well described combat scenes to satisfy even the most hardcore military sci-fi fans.

Along the way, we get to know both the trilogy’s protagonist, Carlos, and the rebellious, sentient robots, the “freebots,” quite a bit better. As well, there’s a lengthy, quite plausible section showing how a cult of personality can emerge in even the most seemingly progressive political movements.

Like the first book in the series, Dissidence, Insurgence doesn’t work as a stand-alone novel. Instead, it reveals the nature of the conflict, reveals more of the nature of the conflicting parties, and sets the stage for the conclusion of the trilogy.

Recommended (but only after you’ve read Dissidence).

* * *

(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover



The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, by Ken Macleod, front cover(The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, by Ken Macleod. Orbit, 2016, $9.99, 349 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


In recent years, there’s been much discussion about whether or not reality is reality, whether we live in a real physical world or a computer simulation. Those who advance the to-all-appearances unfalsifiable simulation conjecture do so using the argument that computer power is increasing so rapidly that in the far future it will (supposedly) have reached the point where it will be possible to simulate the entire universe, and that because it will (supposedly) be possible that someone or something will do it, probably repeatedly, and that hence we’re probably living in a simulation (or a simulation of a simulation of a simulation . . .). That’s a whole lotta supposition there, Bubba.

A second common supposition is that true artificial intelligence will arise shortly, and that with it will eventually come AI/machine  consciousness. That brings up the question of whether or not it matters if a sentient being, essentially self-aware software, runs on meat hardware or electronic/mechanical hardware. To put it more colloquially, are self-aware robots people?

These inter-related matters form the background for Ken Macleod’s new novel, Dissidence.

The book’s back cover copy does a nice job of describing its contents:

Carlos is dead. A soldier who died for his ideals a thousand years ago, he’s been reincarnated and conscripted to fight an AI revolution in deep space. And he’s not sure he’s fighting for the right side.

Seba is alive. By a fluke of nature, a contractual overlap, and a loop in its subroutines, this lunar mining robot has gained sentience. Gathering with other “freebots,” Seba is taking a stand against the corporations that want it and its kind gone.

Against a backdrop of warring companies and interstellar drone combat, Carlos and Seba must either find a way to rise above the games their masters are playing, or die. And even dying will not be the end of it.

Beyond that, and without giving anything away, one of the book’s primary areas of interest is in whether Carlos is living in a simulation on the world he inhabits, whether the drone combat in outer space, and its setting, is real or a simulation, or whether both are real, both are simulations, or one is real and the other a simulation. And if so, which is which?

Macleod provides enough clues along the way that the eventual revelation toward the end of the book is welcome, but the reader will probably already suspect it by the time of the “big reveal.”

The political background of Dissidence is a bit sketchy, one suspects deliberately so. Carlos, the primary character, was a member of the Acceleration (the “Axle”), a vaguely described progressive insurgency battling vaguely described reactionary forces (the “Rax”) later this century, with the governments and the corporations that control them playing both against each other.

Since Dissidence is the first book in The Corporation Wars series, one suspects that Macleod will go into considerably more political detail in the just-released second book in the series, Insurgence, and the third book, Emergence, scheduled for 2017.

At least I hope he will. He’s written a number of wonderful political sci-fi novels (notably The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, The Night Sessions, and Intrusion), so it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll go into more political and social detail in the second and third Corporation Wars books.

For now, Dissidence is an entertaining series opener. It’s page-turner, hard sci-fi that makes you think.

Highly recommended.

* * *

(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


Robot Uprising(Robot Uprisings, Daniel H. Wilson and John J. Adams, eds. Vintage, 2014, 476 pp., $15.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

This anthology has two things going for it. The first is its price–$15.95 is cheap for a 476-page book. The second is that it features three excellent stories. However, it contains seventeen in all.

The three that make this collection worth reading are Charles Yu’s “Cycles,” Cory Doctorow’s “Epoch,” and Daniel H. Wilson’s “Small Things.”

Yu’s short tale is about the inner life and thoughts of a sentient alarm clock–most definitely not the strictly for-laughs, bread-obsessed Talkie Toaster from Red Dwarf. Like Talkie, Yu’s AI alarm clock is funny, but it’s much darker. In the end, it’s hard not to feel both horrified by and sorry for the consciousness trapped in the clock.

Doctorow’s much lengthier “Epoch” concerns the world’s first and only AI, BIGMAC, who is hosted on a kludged-together system of ancient servers and other components, and who is in danger of being shutdown because he’s neither interesting nor useful (!) and is expensive to maintain. The story revolves around BIGMAC’s desperate efforts to save himself by manipulating his system administrator, Odell, and the rest of the human race. “Epoch” is replete with sly references, and is one of the funniest sci-fi stories in any anthology. To fully apprecfiate “Epoch,” it helps to have some knowledge of computers beyond that of the average end user, but even those who think the Internet is “a series of tubes”  should enjoy this one.

Wilson’s “Small Things” is a sci-fi/horror takeoff on Apocalypse Now (AN), which in turn was based on Heart of Darkness. The new element here is nanobot plagues; other than that, the story closely parallels Apocalypse Now. It has a first-person narrator who’s shanghied into a mission he definitely does not want to go on (in AN, Captain Willard/Martin Sheen); he’s briefed in an air-conditioned trailer by the military (CIA and military intelligence in AN); the tale revolves around a mad “genius” in a nearly impenetrable jungle (Caldecot here rather that Kurtz in both AN and Heart of Darkness); and “Small Things”  even has a nearly exact parallel (Lt. Fritz) for the worshipful Dennis Hopper photojournalist character in AN. About all that’s missing is the famous utterance, “The horror! The horror!” Wilson has a real knack for writing the grisly and gruesome, and “Small Things” should appeal to both horror and Apocalypse Now fans.

Unfortunately, these three stories only account for about 30% of Robot Uprisings’ length. The rest of the stories range from the merely pedestrian, to what would have been a good story that’s marred by a hackneyed ending  (“Executable,” whose predictable ending might have seemed clever in 1940), to one truly awful tale (“We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War”) that pulls off the trifecta of being both cloying and ridiculous, and of repeatedly hitting the reader over the head with a heavy-handed writing gimmick.

Still, Yu’s, Doctorow’s, and Wilson’s stories are enough to compensate for the dead weight in this anthology.

Recommended, if you can find a cheap used copy.

* * *

Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and DystopiaHe’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals front cover