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The Night Sessions
Ken MacLeod
Pyr, 261 pages

The Night Sessions
Ken MacLeod
Ken MacLeod was born in Stornoway, on Isle of Lewis, Scotland, in 1954. Since graduating zoology at the University of Glasgow, he worked as a computer programmer and has found time to complete a Masters thesis in biomechanics. He's been married to his wife Carol since 1981, and has two children.

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SF Site Review: The Restoration Game
SF Site Review: The Human Front
SF Site Review: Newton's Wake
SF Site Review: The Human Front
SF Site Review: Cosmonaut Keep

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A review by Greg L. Johnson

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Subterfuge, misdirection, false assumptions and misplaced suspicions are the building blocks of many a good murder mystery, and in The Night Sessions, Ken MacLeod uses them all to great effect. This is a novel that constantly leads its characters, and its readers, down one path, only to have the story twist away in a new direction. By the end, what begins as a murder mystery with some political overtones has become, for everyone involved, much, much more.

After decades of Faith Wars, environmental catastrophes and economic collapses, the world has once again achieved some measure of stability and security. One surprising result of the bad years has been a world-wide rejection of all, and especially fundamentalist, organized religion. In the United States there is a constitutional amendment disavowing any connection between religion and government. In Great Britain, churches and religious groups are simply ignored, given no place in cultural or political society. The results so far have been positive, social turmoil has subsided and the world is building again. That building includes two space elevators, and a flourishing commerce in orbit.

That's the background when a Catholic bishop is assassinated in Scotland. Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson is among the first on the case, and with his investigation The Night Sessions begins the first of its many twists and turns. A first reaction is that anti-religious terrorists are probably to blame, but there are also rival factions, some perhaps violent, among Scotland's religious believers. Those believers turn out to be not quite as few as authorities had thought, and their existence is a major factor in Ferguson's investigation.

For the science fiction reader, another wild card is thrown into the mix when we learn that Detective Ferguson has a robot partner, one who is distrusted by many in the human populace. Any resemblance between Skulk and R. Daneel Olivaw ends right there, however. Instead, the role of robots in the wars and the attempt to re-integrate a killing machine into regular society becomes a metaphor for returning war veterans, and their plight is another theme running through the novel, one with further implications as to just who exactly is targeting religious figures and why.

It all leaves the detective and his partner one or two steps behind events throughout the entire story, with consequences that are not only devastating for the characters, but play entirely against the expectations readers bring to a novel that combines elements of science fiction, murder mystery, and political thriller. In form and presentation, The Night Sessions is a police procedural set in a near-future Scotland, a combination of science fiction and mystery with deep roots in SF. It's the near-future historical assumptions; the turning against religion, and the existence of artificial intelligences that began as weapons, that take the story in unexpected directions, leaving the characters to wonder if they actually understand the world they live in, and the reader to wonder just how much the assumptions we bring to a story determine how we expect it to end.

Copyright © 2012 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson is happy that robots aren't pitching at his friendly neighborhood ballpark. Why reviewer Greg L Johnson enjoys having his expectations confounded remains a mystery. Greg's reviews have appeared in publications ranging from The Minneapolis Star-Tribune to the The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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