Saturday, 7 February 2009

Gods and Robots - The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

According to John Clute, every science fiction novel has three dates: the date it was written, the date it is set, and the date it is about. For all that it may be set in the future millennia hence, the best time to read a science fiction novel is in its year of publication. And if the novel is set in the near-future, this is even more true. After all, the near-future is seen as an extension of the present, with the present's issues and concerns...

All of which may well have a sell-by date.

So, a decade or two from now, will we look back at the rise of creationism as some bizarre atavistic aberration? Will we look back in relief at our narrow escape from religious domination? Or will we, as Ken MacLeod posits in The Night Sessions, go to war and in the aftermath completely secularise society?

The Night Sessions is a near-future sf novel masquerading as a crime novel, much as The Execution Channel was a near-future sf novel masquerading as a thriller. It's set in Edinburgh a decade or two in the future. The world differs from ours - and perhaps what ours might be - in several ways. There was a war, the "Faith War", fought in Israel with tactical nuclear weapons, and the forces of the West lost. Society has turned its back on organised religion and everywhere is now entirely secular. By law. Churches and priests are no longer officially recognised. There are also robots, and some of them have developed artificial intelligence.

The novel opens with a fundamentalist Christian from New Zealand visiting Edinburgh to meet with the members of an underground Scottish Christian sect. The fundamentalist works in a "creationist science park" in New Zealand which has become a refuge for sentient robots. He has been preaching to the robots, and the Scots intend to broadcast his sermons to their own congregation. These are the night sessions of the title.

The story proper begins with the murder of a priest by a letter bomb. Detective Inspector Ferguson is in charge of the case. Clues suggest an underground Christian group, the Third Covenant, are responsible. Then a bishop is assassinated by a shot to the head. Ferguson's investigation soon focuses on a robot called Hardcastle, who has been masquerading as a disfigured war veteran with extensive prostheses. And from there it cascades to take in a host of other Christian denominations, various youth subcultures in Edinburgh, more robots, and the Atlantic and Pacific Space Elevators...

Unfortunately, as a crime novel The Night Sessions mostly fails. Fortunately, as a science fiction novel it mostly succeeds. The problem is that the world of the book requires explanation - it's neither the reader's world, nor part of the reader's history. The story requires its background - it cannot progress, nor be resolved, without those background details MacLeod has created. Which means that the crime novel is frequently interrupted by info-dumps. And because this is a crime novel, they seem horribly out of place. The Night Sessions asks to be read as a crime novel, but it cannot be because it is as exposition-heavy as the science fiction novel it really is.

As science fiction, however... The world MacLeod has created is both clever and interesting, but the requirements of the crime plot have led to a withholding of story information - something not normally found in science fiction. Science fiction novels are open - they lay bare their workings as they progress. The reader can see the rods and gears which drive the plot. And has to in order for the resolution to make sense (not doing so can result in the sin of deus ex machina). A crime novel, however, operates with a different mechanism, and part of the reading process involves the reader's discovery of those rods, gears and linkages. The reader must build the mechanism in their mind in order to understand the book's resolution.

Where The Night Sessions is especially good is in its depiction of life in this near-future Edinburgh, and in the tools used by the police of the time. As a near-future novel it convinces, and there's an impressive inevitability, given MacLeod's invented history, to the society depicted. Which makes it seem such a shame that Ferguson's investigation seem to be mostly driven by authorial sleight of hand. Science fiction is essentially a logical genre - all sf stories follow an underlying logic. The same is true of crime stories. There's a similar implacability to the end of a crime novel as there is to the end of sf novel. But in the crime genre there are no shortcuts on the route there. Ferguson seems to stumble upon the conspiracy at the heart of The Night Sessions more by serendipity than by methodical police-work (he has a number of neat tools, and they do help, however). This is not helped by the Columbo-style prologue. This names the villains of the piece, and means we must watch Ferguson and his team stumble through the clues to reach a destination we already know. Except that destination is a blind - because The Night Sessions is actually more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit, and the real why remains hidden for much of the narrative.

Because The Night Sessions is a crime novel, the resolution of the plot should be the identity of the murder and their motivation. Because The Night Sessions is a science fiction novel, that is not enough. The motivation for the crimes has to be science-fictional. And it is. But again not quite enough. Like The Execution Channel, the final plot-zinger in The Night Sessions happens off-screen - it is in fact recounted by one character to another.

The Night Sessions is one of the novels shortlisted for this year's BSFA Award. It's certainly one of the most interesting depictions of the near-future I've come across in science fiction. But I don't think the engine of its plot is geared correctly to the wheels of its story. I also suspect it appears too prophetic to read well a decade from now. Its concerns are too specific - unlike, say, Nineteen Eighty-Four - and it's not pure enough science fiction to weather the years. Read it now and it's very good. Read it five years from now...?

Ken MacLeod writes bloody good science fiction novels, but we've yet to see his best.

1 comment:

Cliff Burns said...

Near future novels are tricky because they can become obsolete so quickly--a fate suffered by some of PKD's stuff and is all too possible re: Vinge's RAINBOW'S END. Takes guts to play at sifting through the entrails of a present day society to posit what happens the day after tomorrow. I wish Mr. Macleod all the luck in the world.

Well-crafted review and, as always, your points are pertinent and articulately phrased...