AUGUST 2, 2012
FROM THE FIRST, with two series of novels whose ambitious narrative arcs moved from near-future Earth settings to distant planets and increasingly strange cultures populated by posthumans and a variety of artificial intelligences, Ken MacLeod’s science fiction has been notable for hybridizing political thought experiments with the possibilities offered by transgressive technologies. His more recent works share this trait, but have been resolutely Earth-bound and concerned with exploring contentious contemporary issues: the war on terror in The Execution Channel; the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in The Restoration Game; state surveillance in Intrusion. The Night Sessions tackles one of the thorniest issues of all, religious extremism, combining a police-procedural mystery with speculations about the nature of religious faith and artificial intelligence, and featuring a near-future setting that makes a bold break with the present.
It’s a couple of decades after the Faith Wars culminated in the nuking of California by American fundamentalists and a war involving tactical nuclear weapons that rendered Israel and Palestine uninhabitable. Organized religions have been stripped of their temporal powers and political influence — the Catholic Church has been bankrupted by an African AIDS class-action lawsuit and the Vatican is run by an occupying force — and a Second Enlightenment has created a secular, high-tech paradise full of the shiny toys from futures of days long past, when the Apollo program and 2001: A Space Odyssey promised easy travel to other planets. There are bases on the Moon and Mars, and Jupiter’s moon Europa. Space elevators carry cargo and passengers into orbit. Orbiting sunshades are an important part of the struggle to ameliorate the effects of climate change. Robots are ubiquitous, and a small number of artificially intelligent machines, many of them veterans of the Faith Wars, have gained true self-awareness. If religion has been proven to have had a ruinous effect on human history, MacLeod asks, what would happen when intelligent robots get with God? What kind of religion would they create?
The Night Sessions, then, is a clever variant on the rise-of-the-machines subgenre that spans the Darwinian struggle of the Terminator films, and the stranger futures in which artificial intelligences achieve a technological Singularity and become as powerful and incomprehensible as gods. A considerable part of the mystery that drives the narrative of The Night Sessions is where it lies on this spectrum, a mystery that’s resolved through the police-procedural strand of the story and the patient unpicking of what appears to be a resurgence of faith-inspired terrorism. Grounded in a thoroughly realized Edinburgh that makes good use of the city’s deep history of internecine religious conflict, its protagonist, Adam Ferguson, is the mirror image of Ian Rankin’s Rebus and other truculent, non-conformist cops: a sober family man who is ashamed of, although not especially traumatized by, his involvement in the brutal repression of religion in the aftermath of the Faith Wars, and shares a nice line in banter with his robot sidekick, Skulk. Two clergymen are murdered, a rogue Faith War veteran is implicated, and the latest in a series of incendiary pamphlets about a “Third Covenant” starts the plot’s clock ticking by threatening to extend a war against apostate churches to the “secular institutions of the apostate states” on the anniversary of the 9/11 atrocities, universally agreed to be the beginning of the Faith Wars.
A connection is soon established between the rogue veteran and a fundamentalist engineer, John Richard Campbell, who works in a New Zealand wildlife reserve that’s not only been turned into a creationist theme park by American exiles but is also a refuge for many intelligent robots, some of whom Campbell has converted to his own brand of fundamentalist Christianity. MacLeod’s exploration of the conflict between Campbell’s faith and his rationalism is sympathetic, but apart from a couple of early scenes that assert his creationist ideas and show him testing his probity and religious conviction by visiting a polmorphously perverse nightclub (a hint that he’s gay but sexually repressed isn’t followed through), Campbell is a weak and indecisive character, helplessly caught up in plots and counterplots in which his skills as a preacher are supposed to be pivotal. There’s a reason for this, it turns out, but his indecision is too often irritating rather than interesting, and we aren’t shown anything of the sermons to his robot flock — the night sessions of the novel’s title — until fairly late in the story.
The Night Sessions derives a great deal of its urgency and power by drawing on contemporary anxieties about people whose faith drives them to extremes of violence, but MacLeod is careful to distance ordinary believers from fanatics, and scrupulously contrasts Ferguson’s aggressive secularism with the beliefs of Campbell and others, notably a rather splendid college professor, Grace Mazvabo, who volunteers to help Ferguson catch “heretics who dare to use religion to justify murder.” There are no lies in religion, one character tells Ferguson: “There are apparent facts that are illusions. There are words to be taken figuratively. There are ideas that are symbols of deeper truths.” By rejecting its religion, Grace Mazvabo muses, “the nation had lost a way of making sense of itself.”
Despite this even-handedness, MacLeod seems to suggest that faith is little more than a flawed argument about the nature of the world: an argument that loses its power when its logic is exposed as faulty. Faith can be rationalized, explained away, in the near future of The Night Sessions, although not always believably. The faith of two characters is undermined by facile logic bombs that anyone possessed of strong religious belief would quickly dismiss. And despite Ferguson’s recollections of the troubled birth of the new era (“He’d battered through congregations to drag seditious priests and mullahs from their very pulpits. He’d slung screaming schoolchildren in the back of police vans, then turned and batoned down their parents and slung them in too.” That “very” is a lovely assertion of verisimilitude.), the link between the end of the great religious establishments and “decades of religious inspiration or exacerbation of terrorism, fundamentalism, apocalyptic wars, creationism, climate-change denial, women’s oppression, poverty, ignorance and disease,” and the blossoming of a high-tech, almost universally secularist society, is largely unexplained, and seems far too swift (the novel is set in 2037). Although MacLeod is a resolute realist, concerned with accurately depicting the way his near future works, its grain and grit, and deploys a cast of characters capable of expounding on esoteric ideas and obscure corners of religious history at the drop of a bishop’s crozier (invariably talkative, they sometimes veer a little too closely to the kind of autodidact — pub preachers, bar bores — mercilessly sent up by the late Peter Cook’s E.L. Wisty), there are a few jumps in the novel’s logic that the reader must take on faith.
But once the narrative gains momentum, and the true scope and real aims of the religious terrorism become clear, the story gains a strong and relentless grip. The prose is precise and uncluttered, and enlivened by sly references to science fiction’s deep history and a wry, broad humor — at the beginning of the novel, a robot ringingly declaims that science fiction has become science fact; another robot, playing the part of an apeman in the creationist theme park, quotes the orangutan librarian in Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University. There are werewolf soldiers, high-tech police methods that, based on an instantly accessible, panoptic information technology, leaves CSI in the dust, and a thrilling confrontation on the exterior of a space elevator between an uploaded copy of Skulk and the leader of the terrorists.
It’s here that the capabilities of the robots and their superiority to mere humans becomes clear. It isn’t just their speed and versatility, or their ability to toggle their minds from one state to another, from self-preservation to self-sacrifice. Two different characters ask two different robots whether they are saved — whether they have backed up their memories and mental states. On one level, it’s a trite pun; on another, it’s the kind of science-fictional sentence that creates a new reality by collapsing the gap between metaphor and literal act. Robots can save themselves, and can be resurrected by downloading a copy into a new body. They are, essentially, physically immortal. And it’s here, too, that we begin to realize that the conspiracy Ferguson has been so doggedly unraveling cloaks the true meaning of the Third Covenant, that the real story has been happening elsewhere, and that MacLeod has ruthlessly followed the logic of his intelligent, ambitious novel to a conclusion that’s truly world-changing.