Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod
Published : Orbit, 2008
Awards Won : British Science Fiction Association Award

The Book :

“After the devastation of the Faith Wars (or Oil Wars, as they are also called), the world went through what is known as the Great Rejection.  Now, religious faith is swept under the rug, and all officials are required to feign non-cognizance of any religious affiliation in the citizens they serve.  When a man dies in a bombing in Edinburgh, Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson suspects that the cause might be related to something he officially doesn’t know—the murdered man was a parish priest.

Ferguson pursues the case with his robotic partner, another legacy of the Faith Wars.  When the robotic war machine partners of human soldiers gained sentience, people suddenly saw them as highly dangerous.  Many of the self-aware robots, such as Ferguson’s partner, Skulk, were downloaded into the less threatening bodies of mini-War-of-the-Worlds tripod helper robots.  Others maintained their human form, and simply removed themselves from society.  Many moved up the space elevators into orbit, but hundreds continue to live in seclusion at a New Zealand creationist park, under the care of a robotics engineer and fundamentalist Christian, John Richard Campbell.  As robotic intelligence, faith, and violent crime collide, Ferguson searches for truth in a case that continues to grow ever more strange.” ~Allie

The Night Sessions was the novel I chose as a prize from WWEnd’s Grand Master Reading Challenge, which has been a lot of fun so far this year!  I’d never read any Ken MacLeod before, but I was intrigued by the premise—terrorism in a future with self-aware robots, and with religion almost completely removed from the public sphere.

My Thoughts :

The Night Sessions was a fairly quick read, and I wished that it could have been longer.  With its relatively short length, The Night Sessions tended to focus more on plot than on characterization or the details of the world building. There’s much to enjoy in MacLeod’s future world, but I felt as though I only got to see the parts that were absolutely necessary for the main plot.  For instance, the idea of sentient robots is obviously not a new one, but I enjoyed seeing how they were (or were not) integrated into society. Robots are very common in the world of The Night Sessions, but they were mostly only shown in their professional capacities.  For instance, Ferguon’s partner Skulk, was the most developed robotic character, but even he was rarely shown outside of the context of working on their case.  There’s not very much speculation on robotic psychology, or on how they might view their human creators, who only accept them if they are inferior and subservient.  There is an obvious parallel that could be drawn with Christianity here, but the novel doesn’t seem to travel far down that road.   

The basic plot is a detective story, but (thankfully) Ferguson is not the hotshot, failure, or alcoholic that I’m becoming used to seeing in these kinds of stories.  Instead, he’s just a pretty decent detective. He drinks moderately, is happily married, and sees his job as a job, not a validation of himself as a person.  However, he does have something of a dark past that is occasionally mentioned.  Apparently, in the past, the police actively persecuted churches and religious people. Ferguson regrets the brutality he took part in during those years, but the details of his past are left a little vague. Since I don’t know what acts he is guilty of having committed, it’s hard to judge whether he’s a decent cop who’s done a few bad things or a brutal cop who feels mildly ashamed of his worst excesses.  As a result, I was left with the impression that I did not understand the character of Ferguson very deeply.

Like Ferguson, most of the other characters were also lightly characterized.  Though they were developed only as far as was necessary for the plot, I still appreciated the different mindsets each character portrayed.  Religion (mostly Christianity) is a major factor in the story, and I liked that MacLeod showed some of the diversity of people of faith.  For instance, John Campbell is an extreme fundamentalist.  However, while he is occasionally infuriating, he’s not shown as a bad person. Another Christian character, Grace Mazvabo, was a fairly intelligent, religious professor. Of course, there are also strongly negative portrayals of religious faith, mostly of people who turn to violence on the basis of their beliefs.  An interesting added twist was the idea of robots finding religion, though I wish the mindset of religious robots could have been more thoroughly explored.   Altogether, there was quite a lot that I enjoyed about The Night Sessions, but I felt that a lot of interesting implications in the setting and characters were left unexplored.

My Rating : 3.5/5

I enjoyed reading The Night Sessions, but I was left wanting more.  I wanted to know more about the world MacLeod had begun to reveal and about the characters that I felt I only barely knew.  I liked how MacLeod showed the many different kinds of people—and robots!—who are drawn to religious faith, but I wish there could have been more of an exploration of what ideas lead robots or people toward faith in the first place.  The central mystery was interesting enough, but I would have loved to see more attention devoted to the many intriguing ideas that were barely referred to throughout the story. The world, its technology, and its issues were all very interesting, but I felt like the book was too short to explore any specific idea in great detail.   


  1. I am a pretty huge fan of sentient machines of any kind, though I'm not sure you would necessarily recommend this one for that reason alone?

    1. I don't think I would recommend it for that reason alone. The sentient machines were very important to the story, but they seemed to be only really developed to the extent that they gave the necessary background for the plot.