With a characteristic focus on speculative politics, The Night Sessions (2009) by Ken MacLeod posits a world in which “the Faith Wars,” which commenced with the 9/11 attacks and the US military response, continued well beyond our present to an ultimate eradication of religious terrorism worldwide. Indeed, secularist thought has won the day, church and state have been unequivocally separated, and while believers still exist, they do so quietly on the fringes of society. Until, one day, an explosion in Edinburgh, Scotland takes the life of an innocent priest, followed shortly thereafter by the assassination of a bishop. Are these deaths connected, and if so, what do they portend?
These are the questions posed at the beginning of the novel, which opens as an effective near-future police procedural, and later escalates into an intriguing conspiracy thriller centered on some big SF ideas. If the concept of a world dominated by rational secularism and scientific thought, and lacking in religious extremism, strikes you as absurd…well, I had similar reservations going in. But MacLeod makes the concept work, as a thought experiment at least. Could the world ever reach this particular place? I’m cynical, of course, but it’s worth the disbelief-suspension to consider the idea, and at any rate MacLeod’s novel suggests that were it to happen, it would hardly solve all our problems.
Unsurprisingly, this involved political backdrop is at center stage of the novel’s futurism, raising questions of religious faith from various perspectives. But there’s also plenty of intriguing SFnal speculation about artificial intelligence and the integration of robots with human society, not to mention lots of great futurismic telecom gizmos, and Big Idea developments like space elevators and giant orbital technology for regulating climate change that play their part in this detailed future as well. It all adds up to a quickly read, thought-provoking novel, effective as both mystery and science fiction.