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The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

01/11/2008. Contributed by David A. Hardy

Buy The Night Sessions in the USA - or Buy The Night Sessions in the UK

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pub: Orbit. 324 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-651-1.

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Like most of Ken MacLeod's novels, this is set in Scotland (now independent). Edinburgh to be precise, although large sections of it are set in New Zealand. It is, however, rather different from his other books. There is little if any of the left-wing politics which often permeates his work. Instead, his target is religion and while this is definitely SF, it is basically a police thriller.

The year is...well, I'm not sure that a year is mentioned specifically, but it is after the Faith Wars, also known as the Oil Wars, which came about when the world finally lost patience with radical Islamism. Also, after Armageddon and the Flood, which of course means rising sea levels due to global warming. However, this is just background, because the most important change that has taken place in the world is that the 'Second Enlightenment' has taken place.

The First Enlightenment separated Church from state. The Second Enlightenment separated religion from politics. Obviously this a much more tolerant society than today's because there is no persecution (how long will it take for this to happen?), but there are still millions of believers who manage to worship in private but are now a marginalised and mistrusted minority. The police have a policy of 'non-cognizance' of religious activities. Only in New Zealand is there no ban on religious institutions and as a result, it has become a haven for US evangelican exiles. There is also a fairly large population of robots.

A bomb explodes in Edinburgh and blows out the front of a tenement block and a Roman Catholic priest is killed. Sent to investigate is Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson, who with his female sidekick DS Hutchins and robot, Skulk (a nickname given by Ferguson), lead us through most of the story. The robot is a 'leki, which looks like a miniature Martian fighting machine and its real name is Skullcrusher. Lekis can sniff out anything, including lies. Originally battle-mechs, most robots are basically AI's or KI's (kinetic intelligences). They have their own society and belief systems and some have become self-aware. There is also a police computer called PNIA, usually known as Paranoia.

Later in the story, a bishop is killed, shot apparently by a sniper using a heavy-duty military rifle. Naturally, atheists are the first suspects for these killings, but then there is a blast at the Dynamic Earth building in which a school party is involved. By now, a suicide robot is the chief suspect or is it a robot? Some confusion for the police is built around the fact that a human called Graham Orr and a robot called Hardcastle appear to be identical. It turns out that Graham Orr was killed at Armageddon (or was he?), but that he had a robot comrade called Hardcastle who now appears to have taken his identity. Just to complicate matters, robots can make back-ups, so could effectively be considered immortal...

This whole human/robot theme gives the MacLeod an opportunity to explore the relationship between AI, consciousness, religion and the soul. But he does so quite subtly and allows this to come over as part of the story, rather than being in any way obtrusive.

One piece of scene-setting involves Dave Warsaw, 'king of the silent scene'. Unlike today, when yobs with too-loud MP3 players or phones can annoy a whole carriage or bus, even clubs play music which can only be heard by those who have the necessary implants (sounds a good idea!). Drugs are rife and presumably legal. It is in the Liquid Cosh dance club that several meetings take place and we meet another colleague of Ferguson: Mikhail Aliyev, who is nicknamed 'the kinky Kazakh' for his evenings-and-weekends transvestitism. He is described as a 'loli'. Hardcastle is a bouncer at the club, but then vanishes.

Another character is academic Professor Grace Abounding Mazvado, a deacon of the Church of Scotland. She discovers pamphlets or tracts discreetly placed inside bibles and prayer books. These were published by the 'Congregation of the Third Covenant' and contain inflammatory phrases like 'Death to the Apostates and Covenant-Breakers, saith the LORD of Hosts', couched in a mix of 17th and 21st century English.

Mazvado is briefly a suspect because she has not taken these leaflets, which contain explicit death threats, immediately to the police. But further investigation of these reveals that the fifth one is a legal document which amounts to a declaration of war, raising the stakes. She then helps the investigation, though remains rather enigmatic.

But one of the most important characters is John Richard ('JR') Campbell, a lay preacher who preaches to the robots because he believes they may have souls. He and his colleague, Cornelius Vermuelen, work at the Waimangu Visitors' Centre in New Zealand, operated by creationists where animatronic dinosaurs walk side-by-side with apemen. What he doesn't know until later in the story is that his sermons are being transmitted by the robots to their opposite numbers on the other side of the world. Most humans may have rejected faith, but it seems that robots have other ideas.

There can be no doubt that we are in the future when we learn of the Atlantic and Pacific Elevators, serviced and largely run by robots, which are uniquely suited or not to the task of working in space. There are also 'soletas' in orbit which cause temporary eclipses in an attempt to control Earth's temperature. I should have welcomed a little more explanation of how these work, but they become unreliable when their steering rockets fail. When Ferguson discovers the phrase, 'The pillars will fall' in a Covenanter broadside he becomes convinced that at least one of the elevators is an intended target of sabotage and then he learns that a back-up of Hardcastle has been uploaded to the Atlantic Space Elevator...I'll leave you to find out how all of these threads come together.

My only complaint is that I found the ending and final chapter disappointing. To me, the change of heart in JR was unconvincing. I just don't believe that he would have reacted in this way to the events. But this book is still recommended as a cracking read. I suggested to Ken that I thought Richard Dawkins would love it, and he replied: 'Richard Dawkins has already been sent a copy by Orbit ' no indication that he's read it yet' I hope he does.

David A. Hardy
October 2008

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