I’m again obliged to begin a review with the disclosure that I’m an atheist. This will give all readers a basis on which to judge the fairness of what I’m about to say about The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod (PYR, 2012). No world can ever be captured in a few words. This gives the writers of contemporary fiction a distinct advantage because readers can be assumed to know a reasonable amount about current reality. The author therefore only needs to use a few words to set the context and the action can begin. In historical novels, the author’s job becomes more challenging. A balance must be struck between exposition and narrative. The more detail required to establish the setting, the longer it is before the action can begin. Yet this is still manageable because the majority of people who read historical fiction probably already have a background interest in the relevant period or events, so hints, nudges and allusions are all that are required to get things moving. But when we come to science fiction, all that changes. Readers cannot assume anything they are familiar with in our world is relevant to understanding the fictional world they are about to enter. As genres, science fiction and fantasy require a significant amount of authorial effort to explain how each new world works, potentially requiring major infodumps and exposition to set the scene. Except, even with major infodumps, many of which are likely to be dry and potentially boring, the author can only scratch the surface. Worlds are complicated places and no single volume can hope to capture anything more than a few simplified cultural norms and offer sufficient basic descriptions to get the story moving.
So the version of Earth created by Ken Macleod has the benefit of major scientific advances. There are two space elevators. More significantly, the design of robots has become very sophisticated and many are self-aware. The technology exists to create androids but cultural barriers to their acceptance have not been overcome. Sadly, this world also has suffered a major religious conflict. Some elect to call this the Oil Wars, others the Faith Wars. The warped scientific view of the extreme Evangelical survivors is represented by John Richard Campbell who, appropriately enough, maintains the animatronics and robots in the (in)appropriately named Waimangu Science Park, a Creationist display based in New Zealand. As an example of his beliefs, he rejects the idea of there being real stars comprising distant galaxies. He prefers the simple view that God broadcasts beams of light. It completes the creative seven-day process by giving us a night-time display in the sky. That some secularist scientists choose to interpret the parallax of the lights as proving they are stars is a delusion. Needless to say, large areas of the Earth are left radioactive after the Wars, and the rump of countries that have survived are now secular. This does not, of itself, deny the practice of religion. But it leaves the issue in a kind of cultural limbo where no official cognisance is accorded practitioners. In a way, it’s as if all those who wish to believe in any religion have been sent to Coventry. Not unnaturally, a significant amount of time must have passed for this cultural norm to emerge and become the foundation of behaviour in everyday life, including government and policing procedures.
All this creates a major problem for Ken Macleod. Unless a sizeable part of the book is devoted to explaining how all this technology was developed and how the cultural norms evolved, the entire context for the action will be superficial. Yet, if he does spend the book describing the history and explaining how these people arrived in this situation, he has a completely different book to the one he hoped to write. Why have I spent so much time on this? The answer is that the trigger for the action is the murder of a Catholic priest. It falls to Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson, one of Scotland’s finest, and his leki (Law Enforcement Kinetic Intelligence) to investigate. A leki is a relatively self-aware robot designed for police work. The given name of Ferguson’s partner is Skullcrusher but, for PR purposes, it’s actually addressed as Skulk. So we come to the nub of all this. Ken Macleod does refer to events like Roberto Calvi’s death in 1982. But this can’t be our Roberto Calvi because, in the timeline suggested, we can’t develop all this technology, fight a nuclear world war and recover to this level of civilisation. So Ken Macleod is trying to use our history as a kind of shorthand to explain events in this fictional world. Needless to say, the result is unnecessary confusion. It would have been far better to begin with the murder, introduce some of the cultural context through the dialogue between the characters including the leki, and then have flashbacks to explain the wars and the secularisation process. Put another way, if an author is going to attack the notion of organised religion or suggest the secular culture following secularisation is somehow superior, he has to do rather better than this superficial farrago of half-explained historical facts and cultural implications.
Indeed, if this book was really about the exactitude of religious beliefs as represented by people like John Richard Campbell, it would fail because these characters would be so extreme, they would be comic caricatures. If you’re intending to do a hatchet job on extremism in religious belief, you don’t begin with someone whose beliefs are so far from the mainstream. You gently expose someone more obviously moderate and show the danger inherent in everyone. Rather this book is about the robots who are, not to put too fine a point on it, genuinely fascinating. Skulk, unlike his intuitively competent human partner, is shown in the best possible light — it even offers counselling sessions to a human veteran of the Wars. The essence of the plot is the effect of interaction between man and machine. As two of the many who interact with machine-based artificial intelligence, Campbell and Ferguson are programming the machines they talk with. Well, that’s rather begging the question, isn’t it. If the relevant machines are self-aware as a result of their survival in the Faith Wars, can they still be programmed in the sense of being given commands they must obey? Or is it all about persuasion and the choices self-aware “beings” make? Perhaps the humans who have the better belief systems make convincing arguments to the robots. Perhaps the robots, like the humans, have those whose experiences lead them to form certain beliefs while others become cynics. As an outcome, it’s always possible that humans and robots can independently choose to be fanatics.
I’m telling you all this because The Night Sessions is almost a wonderful book and the fact Ken Macleod fails to carry it off is deeply frustrating. Once we get into the second half, the pace picks up and everything in the police procedural and the broader techno-thriller modes come together to make a rousing ending. But the initial set-up is stodgy and, overall, there’s too much exposition crammed into slightly indigestible chunks. So here comes the pitch. When you look back, it’s actually very good. Everything you need to know is there to allow the plot to hang together convincingly. If you’re prepared to be patient, this book repays the effort with a genuinely fascinating story of how people and robots can make the wrong choices. But this is not a book for the impatient nor will those who take the Bible as literal truth find much to enjoy.
For my review of another novel by Ken Macleod, see The Restoration Game.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Let’s start off with the headline. Heart of a Killer by David Rosenfelt (Minotaur Books, 2012) is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in the last twelve months. Take a moment to imagine I went online and deep-mined the various Thesaurus sites for all the synonyms that would extoll the virtues of a book and listed them here. Except, of course, that’s pure salesman’s puff. No matter how many ways I might try to say this is a very good book, it would be meaningless without the whys and wherefores. You need the facts.
Heart of a Killer is another thoroughbred from the stables where David Rosenfelt works as the trainer. He’s had this one in secret training for the last few months, getting it ready to jump out of the electric starting gate at such a speed, none of the other literary horses will be able to catch it. In terms of genre, this is a hybrid, combining a legal with a techno-thriller theme. As the Americans would say, the legal issue is a doozie. As I advance into old age, I’ve been following the development of the case law on body autonomy and death with dignity with an obvious personal interest. Should disease cause serious problems, it would be a relief if I could gently put an end to my life. Selfishly, it would avoid not just any personal pain, but also the burden of others having to watch my suffering. A small number of countries around the world are supportive of the desire to achieve a “good” death. The majority retain laws penalising not only those who attempt suicide, but also attaching liability to those who assist a successful suicide.
David Rosenfelt takes this issue to the next level and one, I confess, that had not occurred to me. Put simply, a daughter develops a serious heart complaint. Only a transplant can save her. Should the otherwise healthy mother be allowed to act as the donor? To act as a further complication, six years before the need becomes pressing, the mother admitted to the murder of her husband. In a land that continues to allow capital punishment, she avoided the death penalty and languishes in jail. Morally, this might change our view of her proposed self-sacrifice but, as the law stands, the state cannot facilitate her death, no matter what the politics of the day might say. Enter our legal hero, the underachieving Jamie Wagner, who has an impressive academic record, but is on a fast-track to obscurity in a top firm of attorneys. He’s rescued by three people. A senior partner instructs him to take on our prisoner’s case pro bono and his parents disapprove, insisting he withdraw. Whereas he would normally continue on his melancholic downward spiral, there’s an essential perversity when it comes to his parents’ wishes. This means he’s thoroughly engaged when he goes to the prison even though, legally, he doesn’t have a prayer. So his Plan B is to get her out of jail. Not the easiest of tasks. But there’s a parole hearing due and, if he could prove her innocent, she would be released pending an appeal against conviction. Enter Jonathan Novack who was the lead detective at the time of the arrest.
The techno element of the thriller is one we would all prefer to think is science fiction, but the reality is rather more real than most believe. Everyone knows about the dark arts of hacking at a theoretical level, but we carefully put a ring-fence around our fears. We can sleep easy in our beds when we think only our privacy is at risk. It’s inconvenient if someone steals our credit card details but we can recover from this. If there’s an attack on critical infrastructure, say the power grid, this could cause deaths, disrupt cities, and take a long time to repair. Needless to say, the investigation triggered by Wagner leads Novack to start looking at some computer frauds. This proves to be a Pandora’s Box particularly when it becomes obvious identities can be so easily manipulated once access to databases has been established. Except, of course, hackers don’t always stop at the theft of data when security systems are often so poorly designed. These villains can sit undetected inside computers for months if not years, learning how every aspect of the business and physical processes are controlled.
The structure of the book gives Wagner a first-person voice with multiple points of view in short chapters covering all the other players. It’s a very dynamic format, driving the story forward as the action rapidly escalates. I was hooked and swept through at a gallop. On the way, David Rosenfelt reveals a sly sense of humour and the occasional smile encourages us to keep up the pace. I’m not sure I’m convinced by our hero’s romantic interest in his client. We all know it can’t go anywhere. She’s either staying put in jail or lies dead to save her daughter. I think he would probably be less involved but, at my age, I know little about the young. Perhaps they really are this impractical in matters of the heart (sic). Nevertheless, put all this together and you arrive breathless at the end, collecting the prize money in the winner’s enclosure and retiring to he nearest bar to open a bottle of champagne. Read Heart of a Killer or miss out!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.