Sunday, 15 March 2009

Ken Macleod, The Night Sessions (2008)

To begin, at the beginning, with a general Macleodic observation: I want to like Ken Macleod's books more than, often, I do. He is a talented writer with an incisive, inventive mind and lots of sfnal virtues; his writing is always crisp, his plotting and characters often very good, and he plugs his cable into the zetgeist's circuitry in thought-provoking ways. But more often than not, after finishing his stuff, I find myself trying to pindown a sense of not-quite-thereness.

That said, I certainly enjoyed The Night Sessions more than reviews had led me to expect. Not that I entirely disagreed with those reviews: Jonathan McCalmont gets it pretty much right, I think, with his ‘uncanny valley’ piece. The book’s world does indeed fall uncomfortably between being distanciated enough to function as fable and having the verisimilitude necessary to make it come alive as a convincing simulacrum of reality. It is a novel that ought, perhaps, to have had the courage of its Phil Dickian convictions, and set itself in a more stylised 1950s-American-Suburbia-on-Mars, or something.

In fact, The Night Sessions is three novels jammed together, held with surgical twine and bolts through its neck. One part is policier in a recognisable Edinburgh Ian-Town Top-Rankin style; which is to say, a whodunnit and police procedural with a deal of Scottish specificity (although as Nic Clarke notes, the policeman at the heart of the investigation is pitched in a rather obviously anti-Rebus mode—happily married, sober, methodical and so on). Connected to this, but not in a way that coheres especially well, is the SFnal stuff: a future society in which global atomic war has knocked religion out of the public magisterium, a new Enlightenment; viz., a fictional platform upon which Macleod can stage a number of—sometimes interesting, sometimes less so—thought-experimental postulations about the way ‘religion’ works in the world. The dramatic emphasis is on religious fundamentalism, and the bite of the piece has to do with our contemporary anxiety about those few who parlay their religious beliefs into violence.

The third element is a robot story; not quite a Benderesque Kill-All-Humans uprising, but far-sweeping enough. This component is the best of the three, I thought.

My reaction to reading this novel came in two stages. The first, immediately on finishing it, was, broadly, of disappointment. It is not, as several reviewers noted, so effective a piece of fiction as The Execution Channel. In key ways I just didn’t believe the world it portrays: that religion could be so easily contained and officially marginalized, for instance; or that so devastating a nuclear war could leave a world so plushly high-tech—all towering futuristic-farms, space-elevators, solar-shield and so on. The Faith Wars are almost presented as good things, despite turning large chunks of the globe into radioactive glass ('they certainly defeated militant Islam, with secular republics now implanted throughout the Middle East' [23] we're told early on; and the presence of the Bomb Squad at a crime scene is so unusual that one policeman-character says that he thought they'd been disbanded). Then, on a nitpickier level, there were various bits and pieces of the novel that didn't work for me: the silent club didn’t seem to me transgressive enough, and the iThink game stuff, recycled from an earlier short story, seemed stale to me (though that may be because I didn’t much like the original short story).

Still, after a week of the book stewing in my mind* I find myself thinking differently about it. It is better, I’d say, than my initial reaction allowed.

Though I take Macleod to be an atheist (I’m an atheist myself) The Night Sessions is scrupulous in presenting, for instance, people with faith who are not idiots; considering its subject in a more than 2D Dawkinsesque right-and-wrong, true-and-false mode. So for example, his New Zealand preacher is a very genuine guy, and has some interesting and worthwhile things to say. On the other hand, I wonder whether parsing a thought-experiment about religion as a whodunit doesn’t carry with it an implicit formal balance: that religious faith is a problem to be solved, as one might solve a murder; its truth is there, somewhere, to be uncovered. I have to say I really don’t see this is a good way of apprehending the topic; any more than one might seek to plumb the mystery of supporting Manchester United or liking science fiction as a problem to be solved. The mismatch is formal, I think, rather than exactly conceptual or narrative; but it added to my difficulty in really believing the world being portrayed.

Thinking about it, though, I've come to the conclusion that one of the things I liked about the novel is the way it sets-up a thought-experiment about religion in order to construe a number of in-jokes about SF itself: from the deliberately clich├ęd opening line (‘science fiction has become science fact’) onwards. This I liked, although I accept that other readers may not be as interested in the crossover between religion and SF as I am.

It's a novel that riffs upon a number of established SF tropes, and I tend to think it works better as metafiction than it does as fiction. For example, calling a creationist Christian John Campbell is quite a good joke; although giving him the middle name Richard (by way, I suppose, of slipping ‘Dick’ into the middle of Campbell’s name: check out what his actual middle name was, fnah-fnah) perhaps overeggs the pudding. Those two SF compadres, Newman and McAuley, get walk-on parts as policemen. Another character is called ‘Vermeulen’, which put me in mind of Nick Gevers' Jack-Vancean email moniker. It's not just people: Skulk is a smaller version of an H G Wells' Martian Tripod (which, since it's an old chesnut that such a tripodal machine would actually find it very difficult to walk, or do anything but at all teeter-around in a circle, I took to be a gag). The Piltdown robot quotes Pratchett (‘ook’, 63) in a rather knowing way.

The comedy doesn’t lift itself terribly far, true (as it might be, quoting Python’s lumberjack song for instance); but perhaps that’s precisely the robot angle. After cracking a joke, Skulk, or more specifically Skulk2, adds: ‘humour is a spontaneous consequence of conceptual rearrangement’ [298]. Which is the very acme of ha-ha-not.

This is to reiterate my point that the robots are the best bits of the novel, not only in terms of characterisation and sfnal geekcool, but in terms of distilling what I take to be MacLeod’s conceptual focus: the deeply sciencefictional practice of literalising metaphor. In The Night Sessions this becomes the literalisation of the metaphors of religion: and it’s often sharply and nicely done. The police asking Skulk: ‘are you saved?’ [270] is perhaps the best of this, since as a robot Skulk has the option of being saved in a literal computing sense denied to the Jesus-my-saviour rest of us. There are similar thought games played here with resurrection, with immortality and above all—at the end—with the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven.

*My mind, as perhaps I should have mentioned earlier, is a stewpot.


Jonathan M said...

Interesting stuff Adam.

I think you're spot on about the New Zealand sections of the book being an attempt to create a fundamentalist Christian character with whom atheists can empathise (in fact, I think that's what the club scenes are about and MacLeod comes dangerously close to explaining away the character's fundamentalism in terms of his being a closet case).

Adam Roberts said...

That's right, I think; although I still have the feeling that Macleod tends (surprisingly, perhaps) to see religion in terms of metaphysical content rather than socio-cultural practice.

Paul said...

Point of order - IIRC, the nuclear war is not global, but local (or "tactical" in the parlance military), confined to a location in or near Israel, which could neatly explain the lack of global devastation as mentioned.

Ref: the plausibility of the religio-political status quo, I hadn't really thought about it in those terms; it seemed obvious from the outset that TNS was set in more of a genuinely hypothetical world than TEC, and as such I instinctively switched that part of the critic off. I tend to let authors tell me the type of story I think they're choosing to (which is a pretty poor thing for a reviewer to say, I suppose); I wonder if this is the result of reading a lot hypothetical (aka "yes, I know, but let's just assume...") sf and coming to accept it as a narrative style in its own right?

I'm waffling now. Sorry.

Adam Roberts said...

Not waffling at all, Paul.

Point of order: North America took some hits too, though, no?

My point isn't that I'd expect global devastation; but given a war of this magnitude I'd expect a quantity of postwar econmoic malaise, and technological knockback. Macleod portrays a much higher tech (ie expensive) world than a shattered postwar economy could manage, surely.

Ref: well your position is fair enough. If I had to retort I'd have to say that I too might have found it easier to suspend my disbelief if Macleod hadn't put so much 'realistic' detail into the book. If it had been more Phil Dick sf-fable it would have been one thing; but since it pitched itself at a level of fictive verisimilitude, I was distracted by the falling short.