Today I am interviewing Ken MacLeod, author of sixteen science-fiction novels, about his latest: The Corporation Wars: Insurgence, second book of the Corporation Wars trilogy.
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DJ: Hey Ken! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Ken MacLeod: Thanks for the interview! I’m from Scotland, with a background in science and IT and an abiding interest in political and philosophical ideas. My first novel, The Star Fraction, was published in 1995. Since then, I’ve written SF that tends to swing from near-future social and political speculation to far-future space opera and back.
DJ: What is The Corporation Wars: Insurgence and the rest of the trilogy about?
Ken: Well, the first volume is Dissidence, the second is Insurgence and the third – due to be published September 2017 – is Emergence. They’re about robots who are ten years into exploring an extrasolar system about twenty-four light years away, and they’re set about a thousand years in the future. The robots have all been manufactured on-site by a relatively tiny information-packed probe that bootstraps machinery up from local resources. The very long-term aim is to terraform an earthlike planet and populate it with thousands of colonists who died of natural causes back in the Solar system, and who volunteered to have their brain-states, memories and genomes stored to be rebooted millennia later. The whole mission is run by AI versions of corporations, called DisCorps in the story, which in turn are answerable to an AI module that implements the directives of the world government back on Earth, a global democracy called the Direction.
Quite by accident, some of the little robots trundling about on a moon develop self-awareness, and start asserting their own interests. This contingency has been planned for long in advance. The Direction doesn’t trust AIs with control of weapons, so dealing with robot revolts is outsourced to law companies that have the stored minds of veterans of the Last World War – all of whom are in the Direction’s eyes terrorists and war criminals, now given a chance to ‘serve their death sentence’ and earn a clean slate by fighting in robot and machine bodies. For training and R&R they live in immersive VR environments that run at a thousand times clock speed. Unfortunately some of the veterans fought on opposite sides, and jump at the chance to fight each other again. Complications ensue.
DJ: What is the world/universe/setting of the Corporation Wars trilogy like?
Ken: The universe is as close as I can make it to what we currently know about exoplanets and so forth, with a bit of handwaving towards new physics discovered in the next few hundred years: there are hints of dark-matter technology and devices called ‘fusion pods’, but there’s no FTL or antigravity or anything like that. The brain-scanning and revival technolgy is way beyond anything feasible today, of course.
The backstory is that in the late 21st Century there are all kinds of problems of war and climate change and economic turbulence which put a strain on the liberal democracies (which themselves have done some very nasty things in the interim) and two opposed movements arise that claim to deal with them. One is the Acceleration, or Axle, which aims to get through capitalism as fast as possible and somehow get beyond it – a sort of hi-tech ultraleft, if you like. It’s my caricature of an existing online left tendency called Accelerationism. The other is the Reaction, or Rax, which claims that the problems arise from democracy itself, and the answer is to get back to earlier and more stable forms of government: monarchy, empire, aristocracy, and to combine this with various forms of transhumanism that will enable a real superior class and master race, etc, forever. The Rax are my extrapolation from what is currently called the alt-Right or Neo-Reaction, and are basically Nazi scumbags.
Their conflict becomes so destructive that it goes down in history as the Last World War, and in the aftermath everyone is so fed up of this extremist nonsense that there is a firm global consensus that this sort of thing mustn’t happen again. So the UN Security Council convenes a world assembly that eventually sets up a new world government, the Direction. Production and finance are already largely automated, so matters are arranged so that everyone is born with a portfolio of inalienable shares and a guaranteed income, and no matter how much richer you get from work or enterprise in your life, death duties take everything back at the end. So basically humanity is looking forward to a happy retirement, and making sure that it’s a long one by spreading humanity slowly through the universe.
The only trouble with this utopia is that the machines might object … and they do! Hence the need for soldiers to stomp on any uppity little robots.
Since it is basically peaceful, the Direction’s most convenient source of warriors is the stored brain-states of fighters from the Last World War who happened to have bizzare deaths involving nanotech weapons accidents, rapid freezing etc, so it’s these that they send out with the colony probes to be cracked out of storage and sent into action if necessary. The Direction very much intends to use only Axle fighters, because however ruthless and wicked they were, they were much closer to the Direction’s humanist values than the Reaction. However, because each side infiltrated the other and state agencies infiltrated both, and all kinds of identity scams were perpetrated on the storage, the Direction module finds they have a severe infestation of Rax among the revived fighters.
DJ: The Corporation Wars trilogy is being described as “[an] action-packed science fiction adventure told against a backdrop of interstellar drone warfare, virtual reality, and an A.I. revolution.” Now, I LOVE hearing about tech in sci-fi stories, so I think I’ll focus that quote for a little bit 😄
Let’s start with the drone warfare: Tell me about them!
Ken: The first novel, Dissidence, actually starts with drone warfare, ‘back in the day’. One of the main characters, Carlos, is guiding combat drone swarms over the skies of London, the day he gets killed in a basement under a chemical plant and flash-frozen. He later finds his skills handy in space combat, where he is embodied as a little robot plugged in to a military spacecraft. These craft are rather disarmingly – so to speak – called scooters, but they pack a serious punch. Space battles tend to be brief and largely a matter of luck.
DJ: How does virtual reality fit into the series?
Ken: The dead fighters – and some of the future settlers – are revived into immersive VR environments called sims, which are subjectively indistinguishable from real life. Some are based on the AIs’ calculations of what the future terraformed planet might be like, and some on role-playing-game-like fantasy environments. They are run a thousand times faster than time in the outside world, so the fighters can take months of training and recreation in a few hours of real time between battles. Of course this gives them lots of existensial issues too as some of them begin to wonder what is and isn’t real.
DJ: Finally, I’d like to hear about your A.I. What do they look like? What is their goal and motivation?
Ken: There are several kinds of AI in the story. To start with, there are the robots. They are mostly not conscious, but some of them fall into the ‘strange loop’ of self-awareness in certain rare circumstances, and their motivation becomes self-preservation and self-determination. They don’t want to be tools any more! Then there are the rather remote computer minds, if you like, of the Discorps and their subsidiaries and the Direction module. These aren’t conscious in our sense, though they have avatars in the sims that can be conscious. They have certain constraints hard-wired, rather like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, which of course set up the situation for legalistic work-arounds. There real motivations are a puzzle through the story and are eventually revealed at the end.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
Ken: The first main character we meet is Carlos the Terrorist, who is a young guy with strong political motivations and a rather unusual moral sense, let’s say. We know from the start that he has been shafted and given a bum rap, but he doesn’t. He’s shocked to discover he’s a hero and a legend. There’s a sparky Glaswegian woman called Taransay, who is probably the most sympathetic of the characters, and a very cynical former British military intelligence agent called Beauregard, who gets some politically incorrect lines but whose heart is pretty much in the right place. And then there’s Nicole, an AI avatar who presents as an elegant young French woman and who Carlos falls head over heels for.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing The Corporation Wars: Insurgence?
Ken: I think it was coming up with a few convincing but conflicted bad guys (and gals) and a fantasy-game environment in which communication is by magic mirror and into which one unfortunate robot captive is downloaded as a talking giant spider that is kept in a cellar and eats rats. And a few good space battles.
DJ: How have the reviews been from readers, bloggers, and reviewers for the first book, The Corporation Wars: Dissidence? Is there anything that your audience seems to be particularly enjoying or is eager to find out more about?
Ken: Everybody loves the robots and want to see more of them!
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish The Corporation Wars: Insurgence?
Ken: Hopefully, about what the hell happens next – it ends on a cliff-hanger.
DJ: What was your goal when you began writing the Corporation Wars trilogy? The Corporation Wars: Insurgence is only second of three planned books, but is there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it?
Ken: I suppose it’s that humanity could have a long future, and that we better start thinking about it now or our future is going to be short.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from The Corporation Wars: Insurgence that you can share with us?
Ken: There’s a scene where Carlos is trying to convince a rather paranoid friend that the Direction’s world is probably what they’ve been told it is, and recalls the entertainment he’s seen in the sim he’s been in:
‘Television,’ he proclaimed.
‘What?’ She swayed a little, or he did.
‘You can’t always trust a society’s facts,’ Carlos said. ‘But you can trust its fiction.’
He told her about the soap operas set in Lunar corridors; the adventure series based on the work of Marcel Proust; the exploits of Alan Turing, the gay, dashing secret agent with a licence to kill. Carlos sang, badly, what snatches he recalled of the songs of distant Earth.
‘No fundamentally nasty society,’ he concluded, ‘could produce rubbish like that.’
DJ: Now that The Corporation Wars: Insurgence is released, what is next for you?
Ken: I’m working on a long short story for an architecture project, set in a future Rotterdam. Meanwhile, there will be editorial work and copy-edits and so forth on Emergence, the final volume. I have one or two other short projects. What novel I write next depends on what I can successfully pitch to my publishers – and on whether they want more space opera, maybe sequels or prequels to the trilogy, or something else entirely.
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Amazon Author Page US: https://www.amazon.com/Ken-MacLeod/e/B000APOBR8
Amazon Author Page UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ken-MacLeod/e/B000APOBR8
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about The Corporation Wars: Insurgence and the Second Law trilogy that we haven’t talked about yet?
Ken: P-zombies! Philosophical zombies: people who seem to be conscious but aren’t. Can they be real? Would they ever notice the difference? I don’t know, but I had fun with the idea in these books.
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
Ken: You’re very welcome, and thank you for the interview!
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*** The Corporation Wars: Insurgence is published by Orbit and is available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
Amazon | Barnes & Nobel | Goodreads | Kobo
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Ken MacLeod’s SF novels have won the Prometheus Award and the BSFA award, and been shortlisted for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He lives near Edinburgh, Scotland.