The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod
Jennie reviews the fourth and final book from the BSFA Best Novel Award 2009 shortlist:
I feel as if I should begin this review with a confession. It’s fairly tame, as confessions go, but it does have direct bearing on how very much I enjoyed The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod. So, I just thought you should know that I am a Battlestar Galactica junky, and I love Isaac Asimov. And Ian Rankin. I am predisposed to enjoy books featuring possible futures of mankind and robots, also space elevators. Add mystery? Excellent! Night Sessions delivers, and although it has the occasional moment where the details included in the future seem just too *perfect* to be real, it is an enjoyable and riveting read.
It begins with a brief prologue that sets up the premise of a possible future. There, in this futuristic Scotland, religion is, officially, no one’s business. After years of war and terrorism, there was a great rejection of religion, and those who still believe, like John Richard Campbell, operate in a legal no-man’s land. The world has changed, and now humans coexist uncomfortably with sentient robots. Some of the robots work as mechanics in the upper atmosphere and keep the space elevators working. Some are part of the police force, ripped from their war-time combat bodies to ones more suited for protect and serve. Some, though, have begun looking into religion, and John Richard Campbell now has a group of robots that listen to him preach–which brings him to the attention of a small Scottish sect.
A year later, a man in Scotland is dead. His life’s work, carefully ignored by the police and government, was as a local priest. D.I. Adam Ferguson and his robot/leki assistant, Skulk, are left with very few clues and even fewer suspects. In a world where religion is specifically and systematically ignored and set-aside, it is difficult to know where, or with whom, to begin an investigation. If you do not, officially, know of anyone religious, how do you warn possible victims? How do you hunt for those who are opposed to something that no one is paying any attention to? It soon gets even worse when a bishop is murdered and the threat of widespread terrorism against anyone, religious or not, becomes impossible to ignore.
Woven into the central mystery are rippling threads that serve both to further the plot and add more depth to the world that MacLeod has created. There are some club hopping students, a few Russian mafia gangsters, a religious professor, and that strange Scottish sect that, with the help of some robots, listens to John Richard Campbell preach the Gospel at their Tuesday “night sessions”. None of the characters feel unnecessary (although there is a bit of reliance on coincidence), and they all help, in one way or another, lead D.I. Ferguson to the complicated answers he seeks.
If there is any weakness in the book, it is that the smaller details sometimes ring false. As much as I hope there is, eventually, a “Gore Observatory”, iThink smartphones, and friendly sentient robots, the future MacLeod creates sometimes feels put on in a way that doesn’t work with his sure touch with the central mystery and philosophical questions. On the whole, I enjoyed the details, but they don’t always mesh with the book. Especially with the question of robots receiving religious instruction or the place of religion in modern society, little details that seem placed for their effect drag the readers out of these more philosophical parts and lighten the entire tone. This doesn’t detract from how enjoyable the story is, but it does impact the feeling of the ending, which is more noire than light-hearted.
The Night Sessions is fun. It moves quickly and presents a future close enough to the present to make readers wonder at the implications. The mystery is well thought out; the questions raised and the characters engaging enough to make me wish for a sequel. Even if you aren’t predisposed to be interested in robots, space elevators, and Scottish detectives,The Night Sessions is well worth a look.