Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Review of Dissidence by Ken Macleod

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.


  1. Hi, Jesse --

    I read this one -- and I probably rate Macleod's INTRUSION, THE NIGHT SESSIONS, and DESCENT a little more highly than you do -- and couldn't be arsed to read the next two. My overwhelming takeaway regarding DISSIDENCE was that it felt like Macleod's agent/publisher made it clear that if he wanted to be published in the American market at this time, then the kind of product that market would bear was a space opera/military SF trilogy. Macleod accordingly extruded such product. Yeah, it's got Ken Macleod-level clever ideas and politico-economic preoccupations. It's still military SF/space opera product.

    More generally, you seem to have arrived at the same point as I have: you've just read so much of this stuff that by now you're struggling to dig up any suitable grist for the mill. Hence, your recent resort to the likes of W. J. Williams's THE PRAXIS (more military SF/space opera) and to a teenage favorite like S. King's THE EYE OF THE DRAGON. It's just hard for you to find anything that's any good and new (to you) at this point.

    Still, we've both been reading in the genre for so long and to such an extent that we've both probably noticed a few novels over the decades that disappeared commercially and in terms of receiving any attention from SF fan & critical culture, but which were nevertheless 99 percent better than what did get those things. Along those lines -- and meaning no disrespect and with no expectation that you'll pay any attention to me -- let me mention a couple of SF books that got no love from the market but still stick in my mind decades later. If you get really stuck for reading, you might give these novels a try ....

    MIRROR TO THE SKY by Mark Geston, 1992

    Geston is mostly remembered for some well-reviewed, dark-hued books he wrote as a very young man during the later 1960s, LORDS OF THE STARSHIP and OUT OF THE MOUTH OF THE DRAGON. He mostly fell silent when he became a senior partner at a big whiteshoe law firm out in the Midwest. But he published this one in the early 1990s, and I find it more mature and more interesting than the stuff he's remembered for. It's about the transformative power of alien art and the Washington deep state, I guess. It's cold, slightly Ballardian in its effect, so your mileage may vary. But I liked this one a lot.


    Leigh Kennedy, an American writer, moved to the U.K. in the early 1980s and got a Nebula nomination for a short story called 'Her Furry Face' in 1983. She published this novel in 1986 and another, SAINT HIROSHIMA, in 1987. Then she married Christopher Priest, had twins, and mostly stopped publishing. NICHOLAS THE AMERICAN was written when the trope of telepathy was becoming unfashionable, but remained acceptably SFnal. As telepathy novels go, I actually prefer this one to Silverberg’s DYING INSIDE, though maybe that's just because Silverberg’s high-lit influences (Bellow and others) are so apparent to me that DYING INSIDE feels like it’s less than the sum of its influences. (Although still worthy!)

    1. Thanks for the great comment, Mark. Apologies for giving the illusion I do not think Intrusion is not a stand out in Macleod's ouevre. In fact, if forced into a corner, I would consider it Macleod's best novel, with The Execution Channel, The Star Fraction, and The Stone Canal running hot on its heels. Descent is probably Macleod's best written work from a technical perspective (he was running a university writing program while writing the novel so I guess he was putting his money where his mouth is), but in terms of content or substance, it's not as deep. And The Night Sessions is perhaps Macleod's most satisfying novel in terms of plotting and intrigue. Out of all the books of his I've read, its pages turned the fastest. And yes, I also don't have the desire to continue reading the Corporation Wars trilogy, and am essentially in a holding pattern for his next novel. I believe he has it in him to write a superb novel about contemporary social media and the state of 'news' given the political implications, but every time he goes back to more core genre material like Dissidence I lose faith. So yeah, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if you were right about his publisher's urgings for the trilogy...

      For certain the sheer quantity of sf&f on the market these days has done nothing to pique interest. (If you're interested, I wrote a piece a couple weeks ago titled "State of Publishing" in which I vented about the quantity vs. quality on the current market.) But my motivations for reading W.J. Williams and King were a little different. I read the Williams' novel because I like to read simple, linear narratives in the audiobooks I listen to on my bike ride to work every day. (More 'sophisticated novels' don't seem to get the attention they deserve in audio form from me.) And everyone once and while among this more linear stuff I find good, entertaining novels (e.g. Dan Simmons' Hyperion, Josiah Bancroft's Senlin Ascends, pretty much anything by Jon Grimwood, and many others), but mostly mediocre to poor material. Re-reading the King novel was more a response to reading his non-fiction book On Writing, which was an amazingly crystal clear view how to write entertaining fiction with depth. It had literally been decades since I last read his work, so I decided to see if he was putting his money where his mouth is. But overall, for certain you are right: the mill these days is turning out too much chaff and not enough grist. I guess you don't use NetGalley, which is a site where publishers can advertize upcoming books and make ARCs available for reviewers. It's a pitiful place these days. If I had a dime for every upcoming book with a cover featuring a sword-wielding teen girl, paranormal romance, knight fighting a dragon, or... Achh...

      Regarding your recommendations, firstly, thanks. I'm always up for the opinions of more considered readers. The Geston title I've never even caught a whiff of, let alone the author's name. Kennedy is on my list of writers to eventually get around to reading. There are three upcoming books I've agreed to write reviews of soon: Ian McDonald's Time Was, Nick Mamatas' collection The Theory of Everything (my first Mamatas), and Peter Watts' The Freeze-Frame Revolution, but perhaps after them I will check out either of those...

      And for what it's worth, I'm with you on Dying Inside. It's a good novel, but I wouldn't consider it Silverberg's best, which many who seem closer to the core of genre than me (us?), do.

      Thanks again, Mark.

  2. [1] You wrote: 'If you're interested, I wrote a piece a couple weeks ago titled "State of Publishing" in which I vented about the quantity vs. quality on the current market.'

    I read it. I read almost all of what you write here. We have fairly similar tastes and outlooks regarding SF. For instance, I've just downloaded McDonald's TIME WAS on my Kindle, and also reconsidered my take on Dexter Palmer's VERSION CONTROL, which I now think is justified by its second half (I still wish that meandering first half had been artfully contracted by at least a hundred pages).

    [2] '...every time (Macleod) goes back to more core genre material like DISSIDENCE I lose faith.'

    A working man's got to do what they got to do. Greg Bear and Paul McAuley have also recently each done a military SF/space opera trilogy and duology, respectively.

    Still, it's a shame. Bear used to be the pure quill, the Thing Itself, back when he wrote BLOOD MUSIC and EON. Now look at him. Meanwhile, Paul McAuley's two space opera novels, SOMETHING COMING THROUGH and INTO EVERYWHERE, are set in his Jockaroo universe, which is also the world of that great novelette of his, 'The Choice', from a few years back. Sadly, while very little that McAuley writes is without interest, these books feel under-marinated, without fully convincing plots and endings, and don't live up to either the promise of that background he'd been developing or the PoMo space opera vibe he's come up with. (Although they have lots of great bits, like the Jockaroo manifesting dressed as 1990s-era old school rappers with rayban shades, etcetera -- which McAuley makes work).

    [3] 'The Geston title I've never even caught a whiff of, let alone the author's name.'

    And yet a Budrys review in the late 1960s once compared Geston to the Kuttners. One reason you haven't heard of him is simply that he's written very little since a couple of books in the 1960s, then a couple more in the 1970s. He's a peculiar taste, bleak, but not in the way of a Kornbluth or a Tiptree. You may or may not like him.

    [4] You're reading Dish's 334, I note. Though it has its longeurs, that's a great monument of a book -- certainly Disch's best completed effort in SF. I'll be interested to see what you think.