The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod
Published by Orbit (UK), August 2008
(Review copy received)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
Anyone who read Kenís last novel (The Execution Channel, which I reviewed HERE) will know that Ken is getting a lot of positive praise, both within and without the genre, at the moment. The good news here is that this novel is as good as I had hoped for after The Execution Channel.
The pitch is this: written as an ingenious combination of CSI meets Taggart meets Minority Report, The Night Sessions is set in the near future with an intriguing premise: what if the world secularized religion, if the world decided that there was to be a total severance of religion from state and politics, with religion prevented from interfering with state affairs and from controlling government or exercising political power? Not just one religion, but all religions? Furthermore, what if religions were tolerated, yet separate, and seen (on the whole) as an untrustworthy minority?
Any book that starts with a statement thus:
ĎThe Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion, nor on any other.í (from the Thirty-First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States) is clearly setting itself an ambitious scenario.
Such a premise could be handled bluntly in the hands of a less-skilled writer; and yet, with Ken it is subtle and logical. After the Faith/Oil Wars, and the resultant nuclear war in the Middle East at Moggadon, hence seen as Armageddon) , and with global warming rising sea levels (an event seen by some as a new Flood), the world turned its back on religion. Global warming has been slowed with the use of huge sunshine shields (solettas) passing their shadow on the Earth. Two Space Elevators (the Pacific and Atlantic) have been built to allow manís expansion into space.
To this, then, in a relatively tolerant society, we have a murder. In Edinburgh, a Catholic priest is blown up with an explosive device that seems to have been sent by someone determined to send a message, someone with a disagreement over religion. Further investigation leads to Adam Ferguson and his police team having to cast their investigative net over those with a religion and those without in order to stop further bloodshed. For it seems as if the terrorist is determined to take his message across the globe.
There are, as is often the case with Ken, a few nice sf-nal touches that readers will either get or not get. There is, for example, a character named George Orr, which is similar to the name of a character in Ursula K. LeGuinís Lathe of Heaven (a character that could change reality through his dreams.) Similarly it canít be coincidence that a character is named John (Richard) Campbell, which may be a passing nod to John W. Campbell, legendary writer, editor and publisher who effectively dismissed religion (other than Dianetics of course) in SF (or Analog at least,) who is made here to be an innocent, yet active, zealot. To quote the real Campbell, "Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man" indeed. Here Ken does that, though the result may be a surprise to many readers.
And we have here those Kenís trademark suspicion of things robotic, though interestingly there is a great deal of robotics here. Fergusonís occupation involves using a leki, a free-willed tripodal robot that reminded me of the robots in the film Minority Report. They work with the police, record interviews, listen for stress levels in interviewees and pretty much help out where necessary.
Thereís also little humorous jibes often throughout Kenís work. Thereís a great deal of humour to be had with the idea of a Creationist Jurassic Park in New Zealand, for example, which is slyly amusing in its comments about creationism. Thereís also the great idea of a Ďsilent sceneí: a quiet disco/club, where its clientele listen to music created by VJs, pumped through their phone clips.
Once again, this is a book that makes its points whilst telling an entertaining tale. The characterisation is good, the processes realistic and the plot suitably complex, though never enough to confuse. Ken leads his audience through a number of set pieces to a satisfying ending. I must admit that, despite not being a religious person myself, I did have my doubts that such an extreme situation could come about in reality, though if you are able to suspend your disbelief (as I did) thereís a lot to get your teeth into here.
In summary then, as good as I had hoped after The Execution Channel. Intelligent, entertaining and knowledgeable, this is everything you might expect or hope for from a Ken MacLeod SF novel. Perhaps slightly more SF than The Execution Channel, though not that much more, it does make an interesting counterpoint with Charles Strossí Halting State, which has similar elements in a near-future setting (and who, coincidentally, is acknowledged at the beginning of the book.) Of the two, although I liked Halting State a lot, I preferred this.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, July 2008
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