The premise behind Ken MacLeod’s award-winning (British Science Fiction Award for Best 2008 Novel) science fiction/mystery is twofold.
First, robots have self-awareness and maybe souls. The prologue cites their possible interest in religion and returns to it by the end of the story.
Second, thanks to a major international war, fundamentalism in Islam and Christianity have sparked a backlash against all religion worldwide. Churches are not outlawed; just ignored by all secular authority. A constitutional amendment has ensured the separation of religion and politics in the US. New Zealand attracts religious exiles from the States. And they’ve set up a creationist theme park.
That’s the sf–so what’s the mystery? A priest in Scotland has been murdered. Who’s to blame? Infighting among the remaining rump religious groups? People (and there are many of them) who hate religion for the Bad Things it has done? Hardened (but not hard-boiled) detective Adam Ferguson is on the case.
I felt like I was reading a Masterpiece Mystery on PBS or the BBC, and a rather good one. This is a police procedural novel with a lot of loose threads that seem disconnected as they are presented for the reader. By the end it all makes sense. The plot unfolds well and accelerates as leads are followed, discarded, and new avenues explored. We get some insights into major characters, including the robots.
The various threads begin to pull together. The satisfying ending makes sense, but it leaves the reader ponder what might happen next. Not for a sequel (though that’s possible) but for the change it brings the world, and it makes you wonder what that might be.
Robot self-awareness and intelligence is not new in science fiction. Isaac Asimov explored it in great depth in his voluminous output of fiction. In Ken MacLeod’s future, there are no Three Laws. Robots have their own agenda, and if humans get in the way, they will be killed. And if innocent people need to be killed to make a point, they will be sacrificed, too.
At first, I thought Mr MacLeod violated my reader’s rule about too many science fiction concepts in a novel. But by the end, I saw the connection between robot awareness and extremist violence, and that perpetrated by religious fanatics.
That said, I didn’t find the treatment of religion totally satisfying. But it was interesting. “Good Pope Benedict” gets a mention for one of his books. But Muslims and Christian fundamentalists seem like convenient black hats to me. Like international corporations, imperialists, and ideologues haven’t fleeced and oppressed and killed innocents as much or more than organized religion.
Mr MacLeod’s libertarian and secular future is somewhat reminiscent of the work of his countryman Iain Banks. But this book isn’t quite as self-indulgent as novels about the Culture. And I don’t just mean the characters and setting. On the other hand, I found his clean prose and lack of needless diversion making a better novel than Iain Banks.
There’s more to reflect on with the religion front in this book. Mr MacLeod handled it better than I thought he might. 2008 Best Novel? The Night Sessions is a very good novel. I’d be interested if any of my faith-oriented readers have a thought on it, if you’ve read it.