The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod Review

After flipping past the title page, publishing information, dedication, and thank you’s, the reader encounters the above noted passage. Right away, it would seem much has happened since the present day and the time this book takes place, and right away one wonders what all has occurred to lead to such an amendment (and what were the other amendments in between?)

 Ken MacLeod

In Ken Macleod’s The Night Sessions, the 9/11 attacks upon the U.S. triggered the Oil Wars, or what the U.S., Britain, and their allies referred to as the Faith Wars. MacLeod then further extrapolates several decades into the future filling the reader in on the political, industrial and social ramifications of these wars throughout the novel. The most notable result of these wars is the “Great Rejection” wherein religion is formally and completely separated from government (and not only in the U.S.) as well as a general disapproval of religion by private citizens. Many governments, particularly Scotland’s where most of this story takes place, choose to ignore religion, as if it simply did not exist. “Non -cognizance was now the modus vivendi.” The religious have become an underground minority of sorts.

In the meantime, technology has continued to advance, especially due to the demands of war. Robots in all shapes and sizes have become the norm. Robots even fought alongside humans during the Faith Wars. The horrors of these wars ignited a self-awareness in many of these “combat mechs.“ Ironically, after finding themselves, so to speak, many robots also found religion.

It is in this setting that Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson finds himself investigating the murder of a Catholic priest. DI Ferguson exhibits a weariness about him as well as a sincerity about his duty. MacLeod blends standard police procedures with interesting devices like virtual conference rooms seen through contact lenses, internet access through these same contact lenses, and the use of lekis, robotic police assistants. Ferguson’s leki assistant is known as Skulk, short for Skullcrusher, his taken name after being re-purposed from a combat mech.

Nearly half a world away, John Campbell works at the creationist science park in the Waimangu Valley of New Zealand. There he tends to the mechanical (and for those that desire it, spiritual) needs of the self-aware robots that have chosen this park as their refuge. Campbell is a young man whose religious verve, passion and most especially his “evangelical concern for the souls of Turing-test-passing robots and other artificial intelligences” had proven to be too much for more than one fundamentalist church. The park has is something of a refuge for him as well. But unbeknownst to Campbell, his weekly ministrations are being broadcast outside the park, including, interestingly enough, Scotland.

Night Sessions refer to Campbell’s weekly religious discourses to the robots. It is also a reference to the dance raves in Scotland. And it is a reference to secret meetings between Skulk and his former army lieutenant.

At its heart, The Night Sessions is an intriguing murder mystery. It is something of a futuristic police procedural that moves at a steady, methodical pace. MacLeod supports this envisioned future with plenty of references to its turbulent and controversial history that provide depth to the story without bogging it down or being distracting.

It is also a provocative look at religion. Its place in science, in government, if it should even have a place in these sectors. Except for a few extremists on both sides (helps to keep things interesting after all) MacLeod provides several different thoughtful and intelligent perspectives on the issues of religion.

He also provides a rather dry and cheeky kind of humor throughout, especially in the robotic characters. In the following passage, a humanoid robot of the Waimangu Creationist Science Park explains to one of the park rangers why creationist taxonomists are the cause of his lower lumbar troubles:

“A few weeks ago,” said the head, “they reclassified my kind from ‘fully human post-Diluvial local variety’ to ‘extinct large-brained ape’. Some little dipshit at the Institute had done a lit review and decided that the bones of the type specimen weren’t definitively associated with the stone tools found in the same horizon of the same fucking dig. And furthermore, that the fossil’s cervical vertebrae and pelvis weren’t well enough preserved to justify giving me an upright stance. So suddenly I’ve got to start shambling around like a half-shut knife, swinging my arms and grunting. It demeaning, I tell you. And it’s done my back in. I expect my neck will be next.”

My only little bone of contention is with John Campbell and the change wrought upon his religious views at the end of the book. It seemed too radical (even for Campbell) and too hasty.

The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod is an absorbing and stimulating read. Robots, religion, and murder come together in this modern science fiction mystery.