Book Review: Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

Shifting political tides are frequent and cyclical enough that they’ve earned their own label — pendulum politics. One party and its policies are in. The pendulum swings and another party and its policies dominate. Rarely, though, does the pendulum swing as much as the scenario in which Ken MacLeod plots Night Sessions, the winner of the 2008 British Science Fiction Association award for best novel.

Night Sessions is set in a near future in the aftermath of what Britain and its allies call the “the Faith Wars” and others call “the Oil Wars.” 9/11 was the first in a series of events that eventually brought all-out war between Muslim and Christian nations, a war in which soldiers were aided by sentient robots and the sides engaged in tactical nuclear exchanges on the plains of Megiddo, solving the Israeli-Palestine conflict by making that part of the Middle East uninhabitable. Los Angeles is little more than a “black plain,” the victim of a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead, in the course of an internal war with fundamentalist Christians.

The savagery and effects of the Faith Wars prompted a secular backlash called the Second Enlightenment (or the Great Rejection in religious camps). Even using persecution and harassment when deemed necessary, the Second Enlightenment ultimately attained its goal of separating Church from State and removing religion entirely from politics and public life. The U.K. and other parts of Europe are secular to the point that society no longer recognizes religion, despite the fact there remain millions of believers. The official policy is one of “non-cognisance.” The United States has even adopted a constitutional amendment expressly stating the nation was not founded on Christian, or any other, religion. Some American Christian fundamentalists have taken refuge in New Zealand, where, among other things, there is a “science park” in a national park portraying a creationist view of the world, often using sentient robots to portray man living with dinosaurs.

Within this setting, the main plot line leans toward police procedural set in Edinburgh in MacLeod’s native Scotland. Detective Adam Ferguson helps head up the investigation of the death of a Catholic parish priest who opens a package containing a bomb. Through his investigation, Ferguson, aided by “Skulk,” a leki (law enforcement kinetic intelligence — a type of sentient robot) assistant, attempts to ascertain if the deaths are a form of terrorism by either atheist or religious extremists, particularly as more clerics are murdered.

Ferguson’s work with Skulk can’t help but bring to mind Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, in which a human detective partnered with a humanoid robot, R. Daneel Olivaw. Night Sessions has a far more dystopian edge than any of Asimov’s robot stories. MacLeod also joins British author Charles Stross in using a police procedural set in Edinburgh as a vehicle through which to explore near future scenarios. Other parts of the book invoke scenes one might expect to find in space opera, a genre MacLeod has previously explored.

Surprisingly, this is the first U.S. release of Night Sessions, even though The Restoration Game, published later, was released in the U.S. last year. Night Sessions deals with more overt hot button political issues than The Restoration Game. This book’s setting and what Ferguson ultimately uncovers raise interesting questions about religion, as well as fundamentalism at any point on the religious spectrum. As usual with MacLeod, the work is well-plotted and tends to build logically. Sometimes, though, plot seems to take precedence over character. Some characters seem to appear as little more than plot mechanisms. Likewise, a key but infrequently appearing character seems to relinquish his core beliefs much too quickly and does so on an issue the reader would have expected the character to have confronted long before.

These flaws aside, this is another MacLeod work that causes the reader to ponder not only key political and social issues but matters we may face in the future, such as the relationship between humanity and sentient technology. As such, it will attract those who view science fiction as more than simple genre fiction.

There are no lies in religion. There are apparent facts that are illusions. There are words to be taken figuratively. There are ideas that are symbols of deeper truths.

Ken MacLeod, Night Sessions

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