Monday, September 1, 2014

Review of The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

Having abandoned the space opera scene with his previous novel The Execution Channel, Ken Macleod looked to head deeper into the near-future with his next offering.  The aftershocks of 9-11 still resounding in 2008, The Night Sessions approaches religious fundamentalism from a decidedly unique approach: a setting wherein religion simply isn’t acknowledged by government, and by default, citizenry.  The story’s payout playing things safe thematically, Macleod nevertheless delivers a well-paced mystery with loads of technical, science fiction intrigue.

Starting with the World Trade towers attack and escalating into a conflict that peaks at nuclear war in the Middle East but doesn’t come to an end until the Coalition forces are driven from the arena due to lack of money and soldiers, The Night Sessions is set in a weary UK that has seen religion legally marginalized as a result of its failures in the Middle East.  The official government stance ‘non-cognizance’, most people have a sour taste for religion in their mouths from the fallout of the Oil/Faith Wars, and do not practice.  But not everyone, however, as at the start of the novel Detective Investigator Adam Ferguson and his partner, the tripod-robot Skulk, are called to the scene of what appears to have been the mail-bombing of a Catholic priest.  The investigation which results taking the pair from dirty alleys to major corporations, underground to above-ground churches, and from the comfort of the police briefing room to the dangers of the real world, the implications of the priest’s death spread from Edinburgh all the way around the globe in a story of extreme belief only science fiction can tell.

The Night Sessions is foremost a police procedural—and a damned good one.  Macleod, having studied his forebears, produces a plot that effectively balances the steady portioning out of key info, timely action scenes that give the plot a burst of energy, as well as hints and clues that perpetuate the mystery and keep the pages turning.  Throwing in a big handful of tech—space elevators, humanoid robots, AI, digital contact lenses, data slates, and an orbiting solar umbrella that protects the Earth from greenhouse warming—the story is likewise very meaty from a conceptual perspective.  While the list may seem too much for a novel, Macleod utilizes each piece of tech proportionately so as not to allow one to override the other, or take over the story.  Save the fuzzy gray area between robot mind and AI mind, the remaining sci-fi tropes are deployed in standard but quality fashion.

Easing up on the ideological content common to most of his previous work, The Night Sessions is what I would term Macleod Lite.  There is no political science jargon one must run to the internet to learn more about or sly references to obscure political ideas unfamiliar to most that require parsing out.  The Night Sessions is a comparatively straightforward read.  About halfway through the story the larger scheme of things becomes visible to Ferguson, and as a result the reader.  Stepping in to pick up the slack at that point is the religious commentary.  Neither too harsh or critical, Macleod takes a liberal view of religion.  Allowing quotidian belief its space (there are several characters representing the innocent side of faith), he limits his critique to extremism and fundamentalism—another reason for the ‘Lite’ epithet.  This is not to say there isn’t the occasional poke and prod (the references to the Holy Land Experience and the Creation Museum, both Christian theme parks that defy logic, are just glorious), but by and large Macleod takes the safe road out of religion land.  (Richard Dawkins would nod his head in support, but be critical of the opportunities not taken advantage of.)

Given their predominance in the story, robots are worth bringing up in the review.  In dialogue with both Asimov’s conception of the friendly helper, as well as the opposing manner in which Hollywood portrayed the metal men in its adaptation of Asimov’s work, Skulk, as well as other robots, feature heavily in the story.  Macleod interjects the odd bit of commentary and dialogue acknowledging something deeper, more philosophical regarding the feasibility of sentience in machines, but shows no interest in settling the debate on where robots/AI fit into the hierarchy of humanity.  Skulk is certainly a parallel to R. Daneel Olivaw (particularly given one major request asked of him later in the story), but the others robots/AIs fall into categories that are never clearly defined and are played with as the scenes require.  There is one in particular scene near the end wherein a group of robots ‘mechanically’ follow orthodoxy while others stand rationally at the side, the relevancy humorous but not inherent.

In the end, The Night Sessions is a novel that entertainingly builds a police procedural on top of a thought experiment regarding religion.  Space elevators, robots, and data technology nicely rounding out the mix, it is a true genre story that safely condemns religious fundamentalism.   At times not as subtle as Macleod is capable of being (the conversation between Campbell and his fellow passenger in the prologue is as contrived as can be), the book appears something of an homage to The Caves of Steel, but due to its recognizance of socio-political issues, not to mention view of women, remains moderately relevant to contemporary socio-political issues affecting Western society.

(On an interesting side note, Macleod proposes an amendment to the US constitution before the novel’s prologue that I think is worth serious consideration: “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion, nor on any other.”  Though it is a known fact that church and state are separate, it is also a known fact that every piece of US currency has “In God We Trust” written on it, not to mention the pledge of allegiance clearly references the big guy in the sky.  Moreover, looking at some of the proposed amendments in recent decades one sees that WASP motives continue to try to work their way into citizen’s rights.  In short, it would be great to see the amendment Macleod proposes in The Night Sessions in reality: people would still be free to practice religion, but they simply would be left on their own from a state perspective.  No tax breaks, no bent ear regarding policy, no room on tax-paid soap boxes to spread doctrine—nothing linking the two.)

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