Thursday, October 25, 2012

Those pesky third acts: MacLeod's NIGHT SESSIONS

A recommendation on the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction forum led me to order from the library Ken MacLeod's science fiction novel Night Sessions. Knowing nothing of the book at the outset, I enjoyed having no clue as to its direction in the early chapters, in which, in the near future, a future of space elevators and sentient robots, a preacher to robots meets with fellow religious conservatives; English police investigate the possible murder (by bomb) of a Catholic priest; and a nature preserve in New Zealand hosts both a creationist dinosaur display and refugee robots.

The book moves pretty quickly, and the writing is smart and interesting, so I flew through it. Though it seemed to have several possible directions it would take, the novel is largely a police procedural; unfortunately, our copper protagonist tends to be a step or two behind the reader at every point, so much of what transpires in the latter half of the book doesn't come as much of a surprise. Still, the plot does pull one along.

More compelling than the plot, though, are the novel's ideas and backstory. Whether you call them the Faith Wars or the Oil Wars, some tremendous conflict, centered at the biblically infamous plains of Megiddo, led to a clamp down on religious intensity in the U.S. and U.K. Churches still exist, but they have no part in public discourse; still, religious fundamentalism (of the Christian kind) continues to thrive in pockets. What MacLeod does well is provide credibility to characters who believe in a young Earth; they don't see themselves as anti-science, but as interpreting scientific data in a way biasing biblical rather than, say, Darwinian (or geologically commonsensical) conclusions. Another huge element in this world is the accidental sentience that's come to some of its robots, a sentience that has not only raised ethical problems but that has resulted in beings with their own existential and theological questions. MacLeod doesn't spend much time on this background material, letting us know what we need to know as the plot maintains pace. It's effectively done and leaves some areas to the imagination while also keeping us informed.

The novel's conclusion ties all the aforementioned elements together, but without the attendant drama the resulting events require. Some of it's exciting, but the truly big moments end up feeling small.

The biggest let-down comes in an area that, for much of the book, is well done: the theology. One of the major players in the tale, a man who preaches to robots, experiences a last-minute realization about the nature of the Bible because another character points out a single biblical contradiction. Given that the guy works at a creationist playland, he'd have to be aware of the obvious contradictions and inherent problems in the two side-by-side Genesis creation accounts and, presumably, have worked out some kind of double-think or intellectually dishonest set of logical steps to deal with those problems—just as every other biblical literalist has to do. That a single contradiction in the texts, undermining the notion of Moses' authorship of the Torah, would have such a devastating effect is an oddly clunky way for MacLeod to overturn this fellow's convictions, and the reversal feels as pat (and flat) as the rest of the conclusion.

Nevertheless, I want to praise what MacLeod has done well (and I understand he has several fine books): the novel contains interesting characters (though the robots tend to have more personality than the humans), the writing is smart and enjoyable, and the tale is built on thoughtful premises. I recommend the writer, and, had the ending felt less rushed, I would heartily recommend the book, which I can only laud in part.