Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ken MacLeod - The Night Sessions

Ken MacLeod, The Night Sessions, Orbit, 2009.

Spoiler warning!

This near-future story is set in the aftermath of the Faith Wars, starting with the current so-called "war on terror", which escalates into nuclear war. After the horrors of this war, the world's population turns against the religions, and there is a suppression of religion, moving it into the private realm, with a complete separation of church and state. This back-story is mainly hinted at and is, in my mind, insufficiently developed. Perhaps MacLeod will write more about this part of this particular fictional future history elsewhere.

For me, with my local concerns, the following sentence sent a chill down my spine:
The Israel-Palestine issue could be regarded as solved, at least until the radiation dropped to a level that made the territory worth fighting over again. (p. 26)
The novel later mentions the nuclear battle of Megiddo (Armageddon), a site not far from where I live. Thanks, Ken, for this vision of the future which is a constant fear in the back of my mind. The destruction of my country in a nuclear war, in the foreseeable future, seems possible. If readers and writers of fiction in Europe and the US consider war as something that happens in remote parts of the world and hardly touches them, they should be aware that for some people the threat of nuclear annihilation is just as real as it was for millions during the Cold War, or even more so.

Anyway, to return to the novel... This is the story of a police investigation into the murder of two Christian clergymen in Scotland, who were part of the underground churches that continued to exist after the suppression of religion. The principal investigators are Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson, a veteran of the suppression in Scotland, and his leki (AI robot) companion, Skulk, a veteran of the Faith Wars.

They gradually close in on a suspect and realize he is planning major terrorist attacks. Like another novel I read recently, The Mirrored Heavens, this story also features space elevators and the threat of a major disaster if they are destroyed by terrorists. Such scenarios will have to be taken into account if/when humanity plans to construct space elevators.

The story also features another main character, John Richard Campbell, a robotics engineer who works in a creationist theme park in New Zealand and is also a lay preacher. He has been preaching to the sentient robots in the park. This made me think about how it is actually not surprising that religion would be of interest to some AI robots. For robots, there is clear evidence that they were created and that they have a "soul" separate from their body, which can be uploaded and "reincarnated" in another body. Also, as described in this story, their moment of awakening into consciousness is a spiritual experience. This is something that hasn't been considered very often in writing about conscious robots. The old-fashioned way of depicting them as cold, logical machines is obviously flawed, because if they are sentient in the same way humans are, they must have emotions, morality and spiritual needs.

However, religion is portrayed as a complex and dangerous thing, which it is. MacLeod gets to explore some of the minor Christian sects and their ideologies in the way he explored various Socialist and Libertarian factions in some of his previous novels. He also describes one character losing his faith, and I wonder if the contradictory biblical verses he cites as having convinced this person to give up his absolute belief have ever actually done that to any believer!

The fanaticism expounded by some of the religious characters is a real threat to our own world. People who believe there is something that can justify violence and terrorism are a danger to all humans and to our very future existence as a species. I would prefer to live in a world where everyone could tolerate everyone else and accept the inevitable differences between people as natural. But I find it hard to believe we will ever have a human society without religion and without some sort of extremism.

I found the portrayal of the robots convincing and touching. Skulk, in particular, is a sympathetic and interesting character. At one point, it has to "toggle" to self-sacrifice mode. This seems to me to be a vivid example of what bravery actually is - a decision rather than a general characteristic.

The story builds and develops in a satisfying way. It is an intelligent, subtle, thought-provoking and mature work, well worth reading.

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