Home > Books > The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

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.

Ken Macleod finding a bridge, for once, over still waters

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.

  1. Daz
    June 2, 2012 at 2:54 am

    Hmm. Maybe I owe it a re-read. My memory of it is that I found the ending a bit weak. It seemed to just kind of drift to a stop, rather than come to any sort of conclusion.

    Thanks for the reminder: I’ll blow the dust off and give it another try.

    • June 2, 2012 at 2:58 am

      I thought the confrontation in New Zealand, the action on the space elevator and the entrapment of the human conspirators was a good climax.

      • Daz
        June 2, 2012 at 5:31 am

        To be honest, I hardly remember the story at all; just the slightly disappointed impression I had on finishing it. I dragged it kicking and screaming from its hiding place in the corner book-shelf just now, though, as your write-up definitely made me want to give it another chance.

      • June 2, 2012 at 12:31 pm

        Well, I agree with you that it’s disappointing. The ideas are inherently good but the overall execution lets the book down.

  2. June 2, 2012 at 4:51 am

    The misunderstanding is entirely my fault, I know, but I genuinely didn’t mean to give the impression that there had been a nuclear world war. Tactical nuclear weapons were used in the tank battles in the Middle East and in the US civil war but that was it. So the story is definitely supposed to occur in our time-line, some time in the 2030s if I remember right. The Faith/Oil Wars are the ones we’re in at the moment, and the ones we can expect in the not too distant future.

    • June 2, 2012 at 12:49 pm

      My apologies for expressing frustration with the book. The ideas have such potential. . . As I understand the timeline, the action is supposed to occur in 2037 and, given the current state of our technology, there’s no way we could build a space elevator and AI research is nowhere near reproducing natural language ability. So, once you start giving dates, I think the only viable explanation is an alternate history. That gives the world in general and Scotland in particular a chance to implement this non cognisance norm following the Wars. For what it’s worth, I think acceptance would take at least one-hundred years. Freedom of religion is protected by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 9 of the ECHR. The social and political reversal of such entrenched rights would take more than one generation, no matter how widespread the conflict. Sadly, I think you made a rod for your own back. My apologies for being critical.

  3. June 3, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Oh heck, no problem about the review being critical! And it’s not my place to argue with it 🙂

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