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Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Ernest Lilley
Pyr Trade Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616146139
Date: 24 April 2012 List Price $17.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

In the not too distant future, after the Faith Wars have put religion back in a box on the shelf, at least for the most part, the murder of first a Priest, then a Bishop, makes it clear that either old grudges never die, or that new ones are being born. Or both. MacLeod's award winning (BSFA 2008) novel asks questions about faith and both man and machine's place in the universe that most SF shies away from.

It's a pity that this is a standalone novel, and that it took so long to get published in the US. Night Sessions won the 2008 British Science Fiction Award (BSFA) for best novel, but only saw the light of day here in April 2012.

At the outset of the book we meet John Campbell, a protestant fundamentalist living in a near future where religion has been pushed back into the shadows in a series of wars that made them all non-players on the world stage. A good trick if you think it can be done. John's kind of a radical, and he's been kicked out of a few churches for going off message, but he's formed his own little church, preaching to a small flock that happens to live at a creationist theme park he works at as a roboticist. Yes, John is spreading the Word to the robots.

There aren't a lot of humaniform robots in this world, owing to them never quite being able to climb out of the "valley of the weird" that they are doomed to walk though. As you probably already knew, the weird valley is a term roboticists use to describe the creepy feeling that puppets and robots that look almost human evoke. Human looking robots may sound like a good thing, but in practice, they turn out to be just plain creepy. At least so far, and that's what the author is working with. Ironically, the robots have found the creationist park a safe place to gather. They don't mind working as animatrons for the most part, and nobody in the real world wants them.

Some find the message of a Christianity that makes room for them compelling, and though John thought he was just preaching to a small flock, it turns out that his message has been spreading well beyond it, as he finds out when he's asked to travel discretely to Scotland to meet with a small group of very hard core Protestants.

A year after John has returned to the park in New Zealand, one of the few countries that hasn't banned or at least discouraged religious practices, a series of murders begins back in Scotland. First it's a Catholic priest with a bomb, then an Episcopalian Bishop with a bullet. Detective Inspector Ferguson lived through the Faith Wars, served his time in the police forces' God Squads, doing things he's not proud to recall, and is none too happy about the notion that religion fueled violence is starting up again, and especially not on his beat. Who and why are the big questions, and much of the book is a solid police procedural (with robots) as the DI teases apart the mystery.

The likely genesis of the acts, and reason to expect more to come, is the existence of a cult of Gnostics, a group that believes that all of Christianity is a sham, one that prevents the true faith from being revealed, and that only by bringing down the godless can things be set to right. Okay, we've heard that before, more or less, but MacLeod brings in some interesting bits about how this reality is a simulation run by a higher being, and where do the robots fit in? All will be revealed, though not until the final pages.

Ferguson and his partner, Skull, are a good pair of cops. Skull is a self-aware AI who served as a combat mech in the war, and now inhabits a less lethal body as a cop. Well, almost a cop. MacLeod's translation of modern police practice into a near future is very reasonable, and would look nice on the big screen. Police in Scotland still ride bikes, and though the crime scene immediately has its own virtual page and wiki, they still use white boards and tape to connect the dots, because virtual things are subject to hacking.

There's a bit of diversion into the alt club culture you'll find in Scotland, possibly so that the author could score a few pints in the name of research, and the idea of a music scene that was only accessible to those whose ear-buds were dialed into it, may have predated the reality of similar venues. Along the way the author develops a collection of interesting characters, but they're ancillary to the story at best.

I liked the book well enough, but I'm actually a little surprised that it won the BSFA's best novel in 2008. As a procedural, we're pretty sure we know how things are going to turn out, though actually the story continues beyond that part, and as a look into faith based behavior it didn't quite manage to move me, though I did like the author's planted sentiment at the end of the book that what we choose to believe says more about us than about the truth.

It always raises eyebrows when someone from outside a culture writes about characters within it, and though MacLeod strives to show the internal workings of Christian Fundamentalists, as well as some other religious folk, in a credible way, I'm of the opinion that he indulges in some wishful thinking about the relationship between faith and reason, namely that the latter can undermine the former.

The dilemma that he does set up which remains unresolved at the end of the book has more to do with humans and robots and how they will relate. He leaves us on the brink of a precipice that's worth looking over, which makes it a pity that this is a one off, rather than part of a trilogy. On the other hand, there may be no good answers to the questions he poses, and bringing them to the fore may be the best that can be done.

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