Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Night Sessions - Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod is one of the science fiction writers whose works has been on my wishlist for quite a while but I've never actually gotten around to reading. Fortunately, Pyr is releasing his 2008 novel The Night Sessions, for which MacLeod received the BSFA Award,  in paperback this month. The publisher was kind enough to provide me with a review copy. Since I haven't read anything else by MacLeod, I have no idea how this novel fits into his entire oeuvre but I thought the level of detail of future society, mixed with the recognizable elements from crime fiction and the humour of some of the conversations a very interesting mix.

After a period of worldwide religiously inspired violence, the world has done away with it's major religions. In the UK, laws are enacted that officially ignore religion, churches are marginalized and their influence (and the number of supporters) diminishes drastically. As far as the government is concerned, religious affiliations, priest and places of worship do not exist. Reality is more complicated of course. Not everybody is about to accept the marginalization of religion in society. When a priest in Edinburgh is killed by what appears to be a package bomb, it is up to Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson to find the killer. The stakes are raised considerably when the possibility of a terrorist campaign becomes ever more likely.

The Night Sessions is an interesting hybrid of crime and science fiction. The author doesn't mention a specific date but the fundamental changes described in the book would suggest a couple of decades in the future at least. Science is not so much the focus of the novel, it is much more concerned with solving the murder and attached conspiracy, which may be a bit disappointing to the more hardcore science fiction fans. Between the lines, MacLeod does mention a lot future history as well as matters such as climate change and a technical response to this threat, advances in robotics information technology and artificial intelligence and of course two spectacular space elevators.

All of that is dealt with in very little detail though, MacLeod doesn't allow it to clutter the novel with technical details. Some interesting tidbits here and there is what will have to satisfy the reader. One of the details that struck me was the link between religious fanaticism and climate change denial. Or perhaps I should say a simple unwillingness to do anything about it. More often, it is thought of as being encouraged by various industries whose business interests may be threatened by action taken to mitigate it's effects. It is one of the many negative aspects of religious fundamentalism that MacLeod, though the eyes of Ferguson, mentions and one I personally hadn't considered. I don't think it's hugely influential but, truth be told, I haven't really looked into it in depth.

One might get the impression that the response to religious violence is pretty extreme itself and that the novel is quite anti-religious. The history MacLeod describes is one where things continue to escalate from 9/11 onwards, spiralling all the way into nuclear war. Despite all of that, the book doesn't portray religion in an entirely negative light. Fegruson is clearly happy with the marginalization of religion, he played a part in suppressing it, and while is is not exactly proud of some of the things he has done, he does feel it was in the best interest of society. There are a number of other characters who are deeply religious and none of them are stupid or particularly violent. I must admit I got lot in the different flavours of protestantism that are discussed in the book. Not being religious myself, some of the distinctions always seemed quite trivial to me. No doubt the devoutly religious will consider MacLeod's future something of a nightmare, even a book they may not want to read, but the views on religion presented, are a bit more nuanced than they appear initially.

Artificial intelligence also plays an important part in the story. The world is struggling with a number of battle robots that have become sentient and have since been transplanted into less dangerous bodies. A number of them have gathered in one spot in New Zealand, where they live in a creationist theme park. Created intelligence and a Creationist stronghold is one of the many examples on MacLeod's humour in the novel. One of the robots working there is named Piltdown, whose name is another great joke, works there as, to use his own words, a fake ape-man laments his existence and mocks creationist science in a way that would make Marvin the paranoid android applaud:
“A few weeks ago,” said the head, “they reclassified my kind from ‘fully human post-Diluvial local variety’ to ‘extinct large-brained ape.’ Some little dipshit at the Institute had done a lit review and decided that the bones of the type specimen weren’t definitively associated with the stone tools found in the same horizon of the same fucking dig. And furthermore, that the fossil’s  cervical vertebrae and pelvis weren’t well enough preserved to justify giving me an upright stance. So suddenly I’ve got to start shambling around like a half-shut knife, swinging my arms and grunting. It’s demeaning, I tell you.
And it’s done my back in. I expect my neck will be next.”

Piltdown to Vermuelen - Chapter 2 - The Uncanny Valley
Where Piltdown is a tourist attraction, Ferguson works with a different kind of robot. His assistant is a Leki (Law enforcement kinetic intelligence), a robot modelled on one of the contraptions from H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Ferugon treats them as useful but also slightly unpredictable. There is always a sense that he doesn't fully trust them and doesn't regard them as fully equal to a human. Some of the interactions between them gave me the feeling the Leki actually encouraged that.
“I’ve checked all the citations of religious texts and legal documents,” it said at last. “They are all genuine. I have constructed a Boolean restatement of the reasoning. If the bizarre premises are accepted, the logic is valid. Someone who accepted these premises would be morally and—in their own view— legally obligated to carry out the conclusion. Taken together, the broadsides are—to use an old term—a fatwa, a legal ruling by a competent religious scholar. Consequently, if we were to find someone who did accept these premises we would have a prima facie suspect.”
“Sometimes,” said Ferguson, “I suspect the expression ‘No shit, Sherlock’ was coined with lekis in mind.”

Ferguson and his leki discussing possible evidence - Chapter 5 - Bishop

Sentient robots and their treatment raise some interesting questions and how they are perceived and what they are capable of proves to be very important to the plot.

The Night Sessions is packed with interesting concepts but it also a very efficiently written book. MacLeod packs more into the 260 odd pages of this novel that some books double that size carry. One of the few negative aspects of the novel, is that some of it is glossed over very quickly. Stuff that would have deserved a closer look. That didn't stop me from thoroughly enjoying this book however. From what I read online, The Night Sessions is not generally regarded as MacLeod's strongest books. Obviously I can't say anything sensible about that, but if it gets better than this, his best must be very good indeed. That to read list just keeps getting longer.

Book Details
Title: The Night Sessions
Author: Ken MacLeod
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 263
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-61614-613-9
First published: 2008


  1. Just finished this novel. Your review is spot on. Have you read any of Isaac Asimov's robot stories? I think Macleod was also trying to comment upon the history of sci-fi with The Night Sessions...

    1. I have read I, Robot a while ago but that was after I read this book. Might well have missed that link. I'm not that well read when it comes to Asimov in general. I tried the foundation trilogy but I thought they were very poorly written. The Gods Themselves was more readable though.

    2. Asimov is indeed difficult to swallow compared to much of the sci-fi available then and now. The Gods Themselves was at times difficult for me. I appreciated the opening section with its real world politics in academia, and to some small degree liked puzzling out the aliens in the middle section. But the last section, which reverted to Asimov's 50s-ish view of the world, was a let down.

      Should you have the chance, do pick up some of Macleod's other work. He's one of the more intelligent writers on the market today, and as you noted in your review, he has written better than The Night Sessions.

    3. I will get around to it sooner or later. Maybe I'll have a go at his latest later this year.