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August 6, 2008

The Night Sessions - Ken MacLeod

The blurb on the back cover of The Night Sessions (UK / US) says that Ken MacLeod has had half of his ten published books nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award. I did a double take, surely not, but yes it's true and that's a pretty amazing hit rate for a juried award. His last book The Execution Channel was up for the Clarke last year and I loved it, a lot, as did pretty much everyone I've talked to who has read it. So how does Ken follow up a near future espionage thriller? With a near(ish) future crime thriller of course.

I imagine that the skeleton of The Night Sessions is like those crime books which I have never read, especially given that the novel is set in Scotland and has a main character who is a Scottish Police Detective, like all those crime books seem to have. Except The night Sessions has robots, oh and Armageddon. It's really only the form which is a crime thriller, because The Night Sessions is stuffed with thought provoking Science Fiction. And it's not just dense with little SF ideas, used as a back drop, (although of course there are those), it's also stuffed with big ideas and tackles BIG subjects head on.

The two main subjects that the book provokes thought about are Religion and Artificial Intelligence. Quite big then. The novel is set after The Faith Wars in a time when religion is officially ignored in Scotland, ignored in the way that they refuse to accept it exists. The novel examines how the minority of religious people have to live in a society that scorns religion, and yes that may have you rolling your eyes, but I really liked the way in which it was handled. The world felt highly plausible, and not that far away.

The other element in the mix is robots: from the police officers assistant "leki's", to space construction robots, to renegade human shaped robots. The characters that are robots are intelligently handled, and feel like real characters. It's a sign of the novel's ambitions when, the discussion of whether a backup of a robot is a new conscious entity and the dilemmas that entails, is thrown into a climactic set of scenes and then thrown away (as it were). Lesser novels would make it their only idea.

The plot unfurls in an enjoyable crime thriller style, accelerating and twisting, and it kept me guessing until the end. And although the ending didn't amaze me, it, more importantly, kept me thinking after.

Serious, intelligent and highly enjoyable Science Fiction.


I've got about one chapter to go of this book; considering how hard I find it to make time to read of late, I've roared through it in less than a week; good tight storytelling, believable characters, and important things to say. For once, comparisons of a living author to Orwell are not hyperbole.

Ken MacLeod is one of the greatest living science fiction writers. And I'm not JUST saying that because I'm Scottish. He really is that good in my estimation.

I really don't understand why he isn't better known here in the States.

I've fallen shamefully behind in reading his books. Perhaps I should make amends by bringing him to people's attention over here.