Posts Tagged ‘Robots’


(The Corporation Wars: Emergence, by Ken Macleod. Orbit, 2017, 402 pp., $9.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

This final portion of the Corporation Wars trilogy wraps things up neatly. Whether that’s a good thing or not is questionable. It leaves hanging (appropriately) the question of whether machine-intelligence is a good thing or not. That it exists here, is beyond question.

The narrative also, barely, leaves hanging the question of whether capitalism is a good thing or not — though the mayhem in pursuit of the profit motive seems persuasive evidence to the contrary. (Macleod has delivered a much less nuanced judgment in The Stone Canal and many of his other works.)

Another mostly unaddressed but central question is whether stored backups of personalities would, when revived, constitute continued life for the backed-up personalities. (I’d argue, pessimistically, that it wouldn’t, because the dead versions would in fact be dead — when we’re dead, we’re dead — and unaware of the “revived” versions, and unaware of their perceptions.)

As well, Macleod gives a good impression of the alienness of machine intelligence in such passages as:

“‘<Very well> said Simo. <Talis and I will wait deeper in this tunnel. If there are any indications that you have been caught, you may rely upon us to save ourselves>”

Anyway, here, in this final portion of the trilogy, we follow the protagonist Carlos, and the “freebot” (self-aware robot) Seba through their struggles against both the neo-fascist “Rax” and the neo-liberal Direction.

Without giving away too much, what I can say here is that Macleod neatly winds up the plot, without leaving much room for a sequel.

Beyond that the text is replete with mostly sci-fi references, including to the munitions company “Morlock Arms,” and a clever rephrasing of Clarke’s famous dictum: “She understood in principle, but the engineering details were at a level where the most strictly materialist explanation might as well be magic.”

Even funnier: “Entire automated law firms stored like flat-packs, ready to be assembled at first notice . . . Imagine a robot stamping an official seal . . . forever.”

The one real problem with this book and the previous one is that Macleod does not provide sufficient back story — nowhere near. So, if you haven’t read the previous books, you’ll be at a loss in understanding Emergence.

Here, for once, a prologue would have helped tremendously, as it would have with the previous book, Insurgence. As is, the lack of back story makes it impossible to fully enjoy this part of the trilogy without having read the first two parts of the trilogy almost immediately beforehand.

So, please don’t even think about reading this final part without having read Dissidence and Insurgence first, and in short order.

Recommended with that qualification.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, two translations, a nonfiction book, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

(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).

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(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.

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(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


Code of the Lifemaker cover

Code of the Lifemaker, by James P. Hogan. Del Rey, 1983, 295 pp., $13.95 (reissued in 2010)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

When the Huygens probe descended to the surface of Titan in 2005, I was bitterly disappointed. I’d been irrationally hoping that it would deliver images of the exceedingly strange mechanoid civilization and environment that the late science fiction author James P. Hogan vividly describes in his 1983 novel, Code of the Lifemaker.

But no. All the probe returned was a bonanza of scientific data.

In Code of the Lifemaker, Hogan achieved something difficult: a successful synthesis of hard science fiction and social science fiction. He devised a well developed, unique setting for the story, and in the story he examines questions such as what makes us human? does god exist? what is the role of religion in society? what is the role of science in society? Despite delving into these heavy questions, the tone of the novel is light, and in places it’s very funny.

Most of the book’s events take place beneath the impenetrable (to telescopes) clouds of Titan, where a million years ago a radiation-damaged alien ship set off an automated, runaway explosion of technological development–extraction processes, factories, machines of all types, robots–all controlled by badly corrupted software. The end result was the evolution of a very complicated mechanical ecology, whose development Hogan describes in a lengthy prologue (10 pages!) that’s entertaining despite being pure exposition (what sci-fi writers often describe as an “infodump”).

This unique ecology is inhabited by the Taloids, sentient robots, who are remarkably human in thought and action, who are at approximately a Renaissance level of social and political development, and who understand their mechanical ecology no better than Renaissance humans understood their biological ecology.

In the novel, the first probe to Titan revealed this ecology (in roughly 2015), but the government suppressed the images so as to be able to exploit the knowledge to be gained and get a leg up on the Soviets. (Code of the Lifemaker was written in 1983; at the time, almost everyone–including this reviewer–assumed the Soviet Union would exist well into the 21st century.)

The action begins with a joint government/corporate (General Space Enterprises Corporation–GSEC) mission to Titan consisting of scientists, government functionaries, a military contingent, corporate tools, and, as part of the GSEC p.r. campaign to sell the exploitation of Titan, one of the novel’s two protagonists, the famous psychic, Karl Zambendorf. (The other is the Taloid scientist and victim of religious persecution, Thirg The Questioner.) Once at Titan, the expedition quickly establishes contact with the Taloids and conflict commences in the Earth delegation between those who would enslave the Taloids and those who would assist them, and on the Taloid side between the budding scientists and their version of the Inquisition.

Zambendorf, originally presented as an unsympathetic fraud, is later revealed to be a confirmed rationalist who hoaxes the public largely because he thinks they’re so stupid that they deserve to be hoaxed, and why shouldn’t he be the one to profit from it? The detailed descriptions of how Zambendorf and his team pull off their hoaxes add an enjoyable, and unexpected, element to the novel. (All but one of the hoaxes Hogan describes are standard scams “psychics” routinely perpetrate; the only exception is an elaborate hoax that would only work over interplanetary distances.)

Thirg, the Taloid scientist, is also entertaining, mostly in his role as an acerbic critic of religion. The following quote is fairly typical:

“Does it not seem strange that eternal salvation for the many, in a hereafter which they are asked to accept on mere assurances, should be attainable in no other way than by their enduring hardships gratefully and laboring their lives in wretchedness for the further enrichment of a pious few who exhibit a suspiciously unholy interest in the quality of their own herenow?”

And some of the descriptions of Titan’s mechanical ecology are whimsical and wonderful:

“[Thirg’s] home was situated in a small clearing amid pleasant forest groves of copper and aluminum wire-drawing machines, injection molders, transfer presses, and stately pylons bearing their canopy of power lines and data cables, among which scurrying sheet riveters, gracefully moving spot welders, and occasional slow-plodding pipe benders supplied a soothing background of clattering, hissing, whirring, and clunking to insulate him from the world of mortals and their mundane affairs…”

While scientific discovery has rendered impossible the setting of Code of the Lifemaker, its treatment of the many philosophical, scientific, and religious questions it raises remains as timely as when Hogan wrote the book over thirty years ago.

Highly recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover