Ken Macleod is not a writer who burst onto the scene. But his Fall Revolution tetraology eventually opened readers’ eyes to a new voice capable of evolving, or at least capably extending the field. The tetraology a combination of politics and near-to-far future science fiction, its has a highly atypical structure that showed an eye for clever, cutting dialogue and plotting. Macleod followed this up, however, with the Engines of Light trilogy, which in all fairness was largely a familiar sf experience. Seven stand alone novels followed thereafter, some of which played within genre conventions, and some which were more challenging in intent. Learning the World, Descent, The Night Sessions, and Newton’s Wake were shaded more toward core genre experiences, while The Execution Channel, The Restoration Game, and Intrusion showed a greater willingness to address socio-political ideas. This all leads to the question, what would Macleod do in his next project, 2016’s Dissidence?
Volume one in the Corporation Wars trilogy, Dissidence is a difficult novel to review as most if not all of its major ideas and premise are left open ended. The plot reaches a natural pause in a larger arc, but overall the book serves as an introduction to: setting, thematic agenda, and characters, and to set these balls rolling. Carlos is a virtual operator revived a thousand years after his death to do what he does best: kill. His consciousness revived ino a virtual environment, he is asked by the Locke Corporation to lead a small team of operatives commanding mech exoskeletons through space to take back a small moon. The moon occupied by a group of robots who recently found group sentience, they seek to defend their new found autonomy with barriers both legal and physical. The mission seems clear cut, but as the political alignment of Carlos’ team, the robots, and the wider galaxy begin to fray, things go haywire.
In its base ingredients, Dissidence is nothing ground-breaking. Political divisions, virtually controlled mechs, space battles, brain-in-the-vat scenarios, AI machinations—these have all been done before. And regardless whether these ideas have been used in combination in a novel before or not, they still feel familiar. There are two areas which are expanded more than usual, however. The first—as readers familiar with Macloed might expect—is the setting’s politics. Old alliances, new alliances, and the complications brought about by legal entities, business entities, and the role humans, “humans”, and AI play in this milieu makes for a complicated mix of interests. Nothing is good vs. evil. The second is that the story works with the assumption humans are robots in the scientific sense—a gestalt of neuro-chemical, biological processes. There is natural space for personality and character, but the verbiage utilized pushes the reader’s perspective toward human life as something more mechanical in nature, which makes for an interesting meta-layer, especially in the scenes in which the characters interact with the robots.
Despite these distinctions, however, Dissidence still feels partially blunted. Looking at the Fall Revolution series, particularly Macleod’s eye for sharp dialogue and original plots, the novel comes across as relatively pedestrian. The space battles will satisfy many readers, as will the military sf tone, but the brain-in-the-vat discussion would seem to offer the opportunity for Macleod to make some cutting, semi-profound remarks, as would the political backdrops to better define the characters’ individual idealisms (perhaps to intentionally devalue them?). But what is presented comes across as ordinary, something which other writers could do, or do better. To be fair, in the aces of the political backdrops, it may have been Macloed’s intention to devalue them, later volumes in the trilogy to explain.
In the end, Dissidence is clearly a Macleod novel, and as such will satisfy readers looking for military/mech action in space with a scattering of politics and metaphysics to fill the interstices. AI, robots, and humans thrown into a conflict that would seem to make their common ground of process-based sentiences absurd, it’s possible Macleod reserved his verve, if there is to be any, for the follow up novels as what we’re given is not unstoppable motivation to continue reading the series. Entertaining and mildly thought provoking for what it’s worth, but full-on engagement is sometimes lacking.