20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Peter S. Bradley
- Published on Amazon.com
Ken MacLeod's The Night Session is not only a good mystery, but it is also intellectually engaging on several levels. It also mercifully treats its "point of departure" - the role of religion in a secularist political system - with more even-handedness than we are used to seeing in this post-Christian, post-modern, post-Dawkins world.
Adam Ferguson is a cop working in Edinburgh sometime after the world was changed in the aftermath of the "Faith Wars." The Faith Wars started on 9/11/01 and concluded sometime later when the Palestine-Israeli conflict was solved on the plains of Megiddo with tanks, artificially intelligent robots and nuclear weapons. In the meantime, the world soured on religion, which was blamed tout court for every suicide bomber and dysfunction in the world. MacLeod references an ugly period of Leftist anti-clerical secularism under the Socialist Nationalists, aka the "Sozis," where the police put "boots into the pews" and rounded up believers and engaged in torture to break the back of whatever latent tendency martyrdom might be left in religious believers after the Faith Wars. In the United States - the place to Europeans where the really scary Christians live - the culmination of the Faith Wars - or Oil Wars as they were known in the United States - resulted in the Second Civil War where really scary Christians, such as the Dominionists, who Europeans must believe are a real issue, fought back with nuclear weapons, leaving Los Angeles a glassy plain and forcing the emigration of fundamentalists to New Zealand.
The United States is off-stage in this book. The real action happens in Edinburgh, Scotland, with the occasional side-trip to a New Zealand wildlife park run by Creationists. Despite the Faith Wars, it seems that technology has continued to improve. The police are assisted by "Lekis" - Law Enforcement Kinetic Intelligences" - former military artificial intelligences who have moved into new body forms. Some artificially intelligent human-form robots have associated into a leper colony because of their knowledge that their not-quite human appearance "creeps" out most people. Everyone has very sophisticated "Ithinks" and glasses which seems to give them an on-line presence and/or information connection at all times.
Ferguson's immediate problem is what appears to be a new outbreak of religious or anti-religious violence as, first, a Catholic priest and, then, an Episcopal bishop are murdered. Ferguson's investigation draws us deeper and deeper into a world where the principles of secularism and anti-clericalism have been habituated to the extent that the state cannot take official cognizance of religion, and where most people view the small minority of believers as somewhat "off" or anti-social.
One level on which MacLeod's book was intriguing was the basic murder mystery. I judge a book to be a success when it can suck me into it so that I want to see what happens next. I found myself truly interested in following the investigation as it moved from one suspect to another.
Another level on which MacLeod's book engaged my interest was the setting. I found that I don't know much about Edinburgh, so I spent some time "googling," or "ogling" in MacLeod's neologism, about Edinburgh's history, geography and demographics. As part of that, I searched for "Major Weir" - who gets a mention in the book - which led to looking up executions of blasphemers and others. Interesting stuff, albeit it's not in the book, but the setting of a story outside of New York or Los Angeles does add an interesting dimension, particularly where the author is a native and drops in casual references from his personal "data base."
And then, of course, there is MacLeod's entirely plausible future history/society. The seeds of MacLeod's uber-secularist regime already exist in Europe. A lot of Europeans already view public expressions of religion to be something that is just not "done." In the words of Tony Blair's "spin doctor" preventing media inquiry into his boss's religious views, "I'm sorry. We don't do God." Likewise, there is the European sense of superiority to America based on the European notion that more than a few miles from the coast, America is inhabited by unredeemed fundamentalists.
Apart from communicating the notion that religious believers have to keep their heads down in public because of social scorn and derision, and responding to that social contumely by paradoxically acting as if they have nothing to be ashamed of, MacLeod doesn't really show what the Second Enlightenment means to believers or secularized citizens. The "disestablishment of religion" apparently means to MacLeod that certain social issues - abortion, homosexuality or stem-cell research - have been resolved in favor of the secularists. This is a typical misunderstanding of secularists who can't seem to fathom that there are secular arguments in favor of the non-secularist position on these subjects, but let's leave that alone: victors are permitted to write the histories.
By and large, everyone seems quite reasonable and nice. Ferguson was part of the "God Squad" that was employed to repress believers at the end of the Faith Wars and, so, is experienced with the torture of religious fanatics, but the few times that Ferguson loses his temper and resorts to religious insults he immediately apologizes. For their part, the believers are generally inclined to help the state where they can.
I commend MacLeod for treating religious believers as something more than cartoon characters to be lampooned and treated as being stupid or evil. MacLeod does show why the fear that secularists have concerning the religion insofar as it provides a motive that permits or encourages its adherents to accept martyrdom for their faith. In that regard, it was absolutely brilliant to set the story in blood-drenched Scotland with its history of martyrs and repression. I also thought that even the character of J.R. Campbell rang true to MacLeod's story. Campbell starts out being depicted as an icily logical engineer with more than a touch of "social autism" on account of his adherence to his particular form of literal fundamentalism; Campbell's defense of creationism and denial of heliocentrism on the grounds of a scientific skepticism is amusing. Campbell's subsequent apostasy when he is shown that the Bible contains internal contradictions concerning Genesis 11: 31, Genesis 36:31 and Chronicles 1:43 rings false, on the one hand, because it seems that he should have known something about this in his constant reading of the Bible. On the other hand, insofar as it is said that "scratch an atheist and find a fundamentalist," the reverse is also the case. There are many fundamentalists who have had their entire world view overthrown when they find discrepancies between their understanding of the text and the text itself.
A last bit of classic "big think" speculation is MacLeod's theme that artificial intelligence might give rise to true intelligence and free will, and that it may be the robots who end up as the true believers of the future. It seems that, in a way, this book is what Anthony Boucher's "The Quest for Saint Aquin" would have looked like if Boucher had been a Calvinist rather than a Catholic. In Boucher's classic novella, St. Aquin uses reason to determine that even artificial intelligence owe a duty to God, and because of that duty, they owe a duty to humanity. A Calvinist artificial intelligence might very well conclude that God has elected some and condemned others and therefore find that its way to God does not go through humanity.
Update: On further reflection, I wonder if MacLeod's theme isn't really about predestination and how our religious choices are determined by our upbringing. If you've read the book you will remember that the artificial intelligence becomes a Calvinist by "identifying" with a human Calvinist. Is MacLeod saying that a Calvinist background makes a person a Calvinist by default? If that's what MacLeod is saying, then what a delightfully Calvinist subtext to this - admittedly - minor thread in the story.
If anyone has any thoughts on this, let me know.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
What if robots got religion ... at the same time humans rejected it?
In Ken MacLeod's "Night Sessions," The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order has not turned out well for the predominantly Christian West. In the aftermath of a humiliating military defeat at Megiddo/Armageddon (of course!), Europe and the US have experienced a Second Enlightenment and banished religion from public life.
Religious faith may be marginalized among humans, but John Robert "JR" Campbell, a young Christian fundamentalist, has found a calling preaching the gospel to the sentient humanoid robots that have taken refuge at a Creationist theme park. It turns out that sentient robots don't fit well with human society. Smarter than humans and readily able to read their emotions and truthfulness, they make most people uncomfortable. The fact that most of them used to be battle droids in the Faith Wars doesn't help. The humanoid robots that flock to JR's "Night Sessions" have it particularly bad; somebody at Sony failed to get the memo about the Uncanny Valley.
Still, sentient robots do have a place. Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson rarely goes anywhere without his tentacled robot partner Skulk (nee Skullcrusher) -- a non-humanoid R. Daneel Olivaw to Ferguson's Elijah Bailey (from Asimov's Robot Trilogy: The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn). When a Catholic priest is killed by a bomb in his apartment-cum-church and Ferguson is called upon to investigate, ghosts of the Faith Wars begin to surface. But is this murder -- and those to come -- a return of the repressed, or something of a different order?
For the most part, MacLeod chooses breadth over depth in his portrait of this near future world. He gives us space elevators, soletas (enormous orbiting shades that partially block the sun and lower global temperatures), specs that allow virtual overlays to real-world places, transgressive dance clubs, battle mechs, and other near-future-fi staples, but he lets the reader sketch in most of the details. Ferguson may be haunted by memories of his activities after the Faith Wars, when he participated in the violent suppression of organized religion, but we barely catch a glimpse of what he did. Even with the Big Bad whose twisted religious beliefs drive events in "The Night Sessions," we get no more than a quick glance into his psyche.
That's OK; depth is overrated.
While the substance of the Big Bad's faith is not much more than a punch line, the book's real punch line is that the Big Bad's bizarre beliefs are not strange at all: "God is on my side. Death and damnation to unbelievers!" Or, to put it another way, most people make peace with their religious beliefs by tolerating ambiguity and allowing for error. If you take your religion seriously and the tenets of your faith literally, however, you're probably in the market for a suicide vest. At least, I think that's where MacLeod is going.
Bottom line: This is a sci-fi mystery with an improbable-but-provocative premise, sentient robots, a handful of reasonably-well-developed characters, a sprinkling of typical MacLeod-ian satirical bits (like the "Oil for Blood" program that benefits veterans, and the "capitalism with Russian characteristics" that equals gangsterism), occasional bits of mayhem, some odd bits of Scottish history, and did I mention sentient robots? It's not his best work, but it's a good, worthwhile read.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I enjoyed the hell out of this book. I'm a cop's wife and a former reporter with experience covering murders, so I love a good police procedural. Toss in intelligent robot cops, the aftermath of Armegedon, and a world where the state ignores religion, and you definitely have my attention. I was also thoroughly intrigued by the extensive world-building that Macleod handles with skill and restraint. He hints at his world rather than dumping it on the reader, but he also makes it just close enough to our own to give it realism. A really solid book with fine characterization. I reccomend it highly.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
It's more than a little deplorable that such a quality and thought-provoking read took so many years to become available on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, Ken MacLeod's The Night Sessions originally came out in 2008 in the UK. I'm aware that science fiction doesn't quite sell the way it used to. But considering the amount of genre crap on the market today, one would think that a novel as good as this one would get an American publisher more rapidly.
I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that the more devout American Christians are portrayed in a negative light. . .
Here's the blurb:
A bishop is dead. As Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson picks through the rubble of the tiny church, he discovers that it was deliberately bombed. That it's a terrorist act is soon beyond doubt. It's been a long time since anyone saw anything like this. Terrorism is history.
After the Middle East wars and the rising sea levels, after Armageddon and the Flood, came the Great Rejection. The first Enlightenment separated church from state. The Second Enlightenment has separated religion from politics. In this enlightened age there's no persecution, but the millions who still believe and worship are a marginal and mistrusted minority. Now someone is killing them.
At first, suspicion falls on atheists more militant than the secular authorities. But when the target list expands to include the godless, it becomes evident that something very old has risen from the ashes. Old and very, very dangerous. . .
I found the premise of the work to be fascinating. In a future in which the Faith Wars resolved the Middle East problem and rid the world of the fundamentalist islamic issue, if at a terrible price, and which led to the First and Second Enlightenment that separated religion from everything else, I feel that Ken MacLeod created a very believable post-war world. The worldbuilding is intelligent, thoughtful, and daring. Add to that a storyline in which self-aware robots find God and you end up with a book that's impossible to put down!
There are no lies in religion. There are apparent facts that are illusions. There are words to be taken figuratively. There are ideas that are symbols of deeper truths. There are no lies. The people who sent me to the Middle East told us we would destroy an evil empire. They didn't lie, either.
For the most part, the characterization is pretty solid. Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson and his robot partner Skulk are at the heart of this investigation, yet the supporting cast of disparate characters gives this work many more layers. One thing that I found off-putting, however, is the author's habit to jump from one POV to the next without any apparent break in the narrative. Still, the plot captures you in such a way that the POV shifts don't take anything away from the overall reading experience.
The pace is great and there is never a dull moment from beginning to end. The Night Sessions is as smart as it is entertaining. MacLeod challenges readers with thought-provoking ideas and never takes the path of least resistance. My only complaint would be that we don't learn enough about the Faith Wars and their aftermath. And yet, that would probably have required a number of info-dumps that would have killed the rhythm of the novel. As things stand, this book is a page-turner.
Considering the social, political, and religious issues the West is currently dealing with, Ken MacLeod offers a look at a potential near future in which mankind realized how different belief systems can corrupt societies.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
First, let me say that I am not the author, or the author's friend, nor do I work for the publisher, nor am I being paid to do this review. I bought the book because I enjoyed the sample. This is simply a terrific science fiction thriller, with a very interesting scenario, convincing technology, and good characters. Not many writers attempt this sort of science fiction; it must be very hard to envision plausible technology a few decades away. And the political setting and imagined history was interesting, too. All in all, it's an excellent book.