Thursday, 17 June 2010

Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions

This ‘ere is my second Ken Macleod book, the first being the rather snazzy The Sky Road, which left me distinctly interested in checking out some more. While still being full of admiration, I didn't like The Night Sessions quite so much: it's an odd beast, doing some things very well indeed, and others a little blandly. 

What we have is basically a police procedural: bad sort gets up to no good, hero and associates try to track him down while filling in paperwork and faffing about with forensics. Only this one’s set in the future, of the near-and-convincingly-possible variety, and that changes everything.

The background is that in an undefined year not very far away, religious tensions around the world boil over, and everything really goes to pot. A massive series of open conflicts breaks out, eventually leading to a violent official rejection of religion in a number of countries, the ones that matter to the book being Scotland and the US. These are the Faith Wars, or the Oil Wars, depending on who you ask, and they left everyone with a bitter taste in their mouth: religions were, for a while, driven underground or overseas (there are fundamental communities in New Zealand). In Scotland, by the time of the novel’s events, faith is tolerated under an official policy of non-cognisance. 

Writing it here, this sounds like a fairly extreme, unlikely dystopian setting, but it’s presented extremely successfully: it doesn’t feel at all impossible, and the unofficial toleration in particular feels realistic – this isn’t some mad, impossibly invasive fascist state, but the kind of world we already live in, only with the tables turned a little. It’s a potentially touchy subject, but for most of the book it’s treated fairly. The religious and non-religious are both given plenty of sympathy, motivation and characterisation, and both ‘sides’ are pleasingly flawed and have their own unease about the modern world. There're also some ace ideas about where culture and subcultures could go in this kind of environment, my favourite being the neo-Gnostics, grumpy goth-like students who believe the world is a simulation. In other words, they're a reaction against the prevailing scientific rationalist mindset, in the same way that some of goth culture is a reaction against the prevailing Christian mindset of today. 

This neatly constructed world is supported by generally excellent characterisation. This is done primarily through dialogue – there’s a fine range of subtle voices here, with most major and plenty of minor characters identifiable by their ways of speaking as much as by description. This definitely helped to make people feel alive, rather than just being pawns to support the author’s plot revelations. I'd have liked to see more of some of the minor figures, actually. 

The strong treatment of religion and character are both let down in the same two places. One is a bad egg, the crux of the plot, who gets almost no page time and barely any explanation or justification of action. Bit odd, considering how well everyone else is done. The second exception is a semi-major character who undergoes a sudden conversion at the end of the book. He’s given specific, well-drawn and convincingly detailed beliefs early on, and these are maintained throughout, until suddenly, after being pointed at a few mild Biblical oddities, he changes his entire system of belief. It’s not the change that distresses me, because the events of the novel certainly justify this. No, instead it’s the odd focus on a tiny spot of mild Biblical scholarship that is presented as life-changing, when it clearly isn’t. Anyone with this character's beliefs would already have had to deal with much stronger difficulties in their philosophical explorations, and these three little verses seemed like a surprising drop in the otherwise splendid characterisation. 

Faith aside, the setting is a detailed but low-concept future, in which everything is more or less recognisable but a bit fancier. It’s science fiction from the news, rather than from the laboratory. There are elaborate forms of social media, for instance, along with nifty search engines called things like Ogle Face and Ogle Earth (see what they did there?). There are space elevators, and big discs that float around the earth, creating artificial eclipses to reduce global warming. There are high-rise farms, robots that assist the police and military, and people can wear glasses or contact lenses with what amounts to a tarted up version of internet access. None of this is described in intricate detail – this isn’t tech-porn. Everything is mentioned as if it’s a normal part of the background, rather than being something marvellous designed to make readers gawp in wonder.

The police work, in particular, is done brilliantly. Everything feels like a sensible extension of the kind of police procedures we see in books set today. They might have an AI joining the dots in the background, but they still do the paperwork and still draw things on a whiteboard, because, like reality, people don't quite trust the machines to do everything. It’s only later in the book that the futuristic parts really start to kick in, and by then you’re used to them.

The high quality of the police procedural element is also, sadly, where I start to have qualms. You see, on the whole I’m not a huge fan of police procedurals. I can get awfully excited about detectives, particularly Father Brown and Philip Marlowe (and do Thursday Next and Sam Vimes count?), but while I’ve been known to tear through some Rebus now and then, I often find the genre too constrained, almost like the western of the modern world – there’s only so much that can be done with it. However many variations of villainy authors come up with, I find that the structures become similar, with the same amount of plot convolution, the same false leads, the same links to hints dropped earlier in the story, the same mildly troubled protagonist, the same guilt and satisfaction, the same points in the narrative punctuated by crimes and explanations.

That, sadly, is also the case here. It’s such a good combination of police procedural and science fiction that it fails to break out of either. Only that sounds bad, and it’s certainly not a bad book. In fact, it's very good - I tore through it in a couple of days, wanting to know what happened next, and wanting to know how the pieces fitted together. The writing is mostly great, and the concept is treated intelligently, showing the flaws of all kinds of extremism, and there is plenty that is unexpected, both in plot and setting. Certainly recommendable, but it's clever and neat rather than magnificent and ingenious. 

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