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REVIEW: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

Title: The Night Sessions
Author: Ken MacLeod
Pub Date: April 3rd, 2012 (US reprint)
August 7th, 2008 (UK original)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A near-future SF thriller with painstakingly-explained world-building that slows the pace significantly in its first half.

Science fictional world building is a double-handed balancing act. On the one hand, it teeters between the communication of relevant facts to the reader and the maintenance of the narrative’s forward momentum. On the other hand, it wobbles between the implausibility of the conceit and the effort the reader must make to accept it. When either of these two balancing acts tilts in any direction, it threatens to upend the other. And in Ken MacLeod’s hard SF thriller The Night Sessions, the string that ties them together is the year 2037, when the book is set.

The Night Sessions is a near-future police thriller: it has a crime (the murder of a Roman Catholic priest), and it stars an engaging though forgettable crime solver (DI Adam Ferguson), who uncovers a complicated conspiracy with extremely high stakes. What sets MacLeod’s thriller apart from the usual fare is its near-future science fictional world. The book is set in 2037, in a society that has managed to erect a pair of space elevators, developed ubiquitous self-aware robotics, and whose recent religious wars have led to the global primacy of political and cultural secularism/atheism.

It is an ambitious work that tries to marry the thriller’s frenetic pace with classic hard SF themes of robotic faith. And in this case, I found the marriage a bit rocky. Structurally, police thrillers count on their high-stakes action and non-stop pacing to keep the reader flipping pages. We get so wrapped up in the events of the story that we don’t have time to consider its plausibility, or to really examine the hero’s leaps in logic. Thrillers rely on the speed of the narrative train to keep us from counting its rivets. But in the case of The Night Sessions, MacLeod’s pacing gets swamped by world-building.

The book features a fascinating vision of a future Edinburgh (and to a lesser extent, a future New Zealand). The settings, and the characters’ interactions with them, make for a great extrapolation of contemporary technology trends (MacLeod’s conjectures about augmented reality and self-aware AI are particularly well-rendered). The sociological concept of people willingly abandoning religion, of faith becoming an embarrassing family secret, is the type of high-concept theme that brings to mind classics like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God, or Anthony Boucher’s “The Quest for St Aquin”. It was the idea of exploring how such a society came about and what life in such a society might be like which first drew me to the book. Yet because the story is set in 2037 (which isn’t that far off), MacLeod bent over backwards to establish how our world gets from where we are today to where his fictional environment becomes possible, and in doing so slowed the book’s pace significantly.

World-building is a particular challenge for near-future SF. When we write a story set one, two, or even twenty years from now, we always run the risk that life will outpace fiction. Far-future SF, or SF that is utterly removed from our contemporary environment, ducks this problem by asking us to accept the fictional environment as-is. Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space stories, or Frank Herbert’s original Dune are great examples of this at work: the scientific, sociological, and cultural conceits that are needed to make the story possible are easily accepted because the setting is fundamentally divorced from our reality. In one sense, they are secondary world fantasies, however plausible the science in their construction. Yet when a story is set in the near-future and on our planet no less, it automatically asks the reader to consider how our world gets to become the fictional one.

It is a challenge that some authors, notably Ian McDonald (especially in The Dervish House, see my earlier review), Paulo Bacigalupi, William Gibson, or Cory Doctorow (particularly in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) do very well. The trick, it seems to me, rests in avoiding history lessons. For example, in The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi wastes very little time on a high-level, abstract discussion of the ecological disaster that makes his fictional world possible. Instead, we see the near-future environment that his ecological disaster wrought filtered through the prism of his characters’ experiences. His characters know their world, live in their world, and we learn its dimensions and history through their perceptions of it. This technique is one which the New Wave’s sociological SF popularized in the ’70s, and which was further honed by the cyberpunk movement in the ’80s and ’90s. When done well, it takes a book’s themes and artfully expresses them through the story’s unfolding action, wasting no time (read: word count) on explanation when implication will suffice.

MacLeod, unfortunately, chose a different route. He painstakingly explains to us the history of his world’s Faith Wars (which he tells us began on September 11, 2011, and which were economically tied up with oil), and how they led to a (apparently global) rejection of religion, how global society grew disgusted the atrocities of war, and by society’s subsequent rejection of the faiths that spawned it. The book’s first half is essentially devoted to explaining this history and to establishing the characters’ relationships to it. This is a significant departure from a thriller or police procedural structure, and it is one which does the story no favors. Because so much of the book’s first half was explanatory, I found myself spending too much time questioning its conceits.

Even if I accept global disillusionment with faith, thirty years is an awfully short period of time for people to forget basic components of major global religions. MacLeod expects us to believe that his hero, who was raised in a society where religion was present, who served on the police force’s “God Squads” in persecuting religious citizens, has forgotten basic terminology associated with Christianity. I have difficulty believing that cultural concepts like the privacy of the confessional would be forgotten so quickly.

Furthermore, the book focuses exclusively on the Judeo-Christian faiths, with some off-hand references to Islam. This is somewhat understandable considering that the book is primarily set in Edinborough, with its strong Presbyterian and Calvinist traditions. But with MacLeod’s painstaking explanation of his world’s history, the lack of reference to Hinduism, Buddhism, or any of the other non-Catholic/Protestant denominations of Christianity (Greek or Russian Orthodox, for example) was striking. I suppose that it is possible that I missed a glancing reference somewhere, but as far as I noticed, there was precious little discussion of any religion outside of the Christian worldview. Where were the world’s other major religions during the Faith Wars? Where are they in MacLeod’s 2037?

Second, thirty years is an incredibly short period of time for a war-ravaged society to develop self-aware artificial intelligences and deploy them ubiquitously throughout society. The technological concept is interesting, the way that the robots operate within MacLeod’s fictional society is insightful, and the thematic exploration of AI and faith is reasonably well-executed. But frankly, I thought it unlikely that in twenty-five short years we might be at that point…especially if – as MacLeod makes clear – the United States was ravaged by a second civil war after the Faith Wars. I might be willing to offer a pass on the advanced technology: the Faith Wars would likely have spawned a lot of frenetic technological development, and MacLeod makes clear that the AIs were initially military technology. But for such technology to get broad distribution throughout society (rich and poor alike) in so short a time period also struck me as somewhat implausible.

However, these issues really only affected the book’s first half. By the second half, the world-building is mostly out of the way and allows us to buckle up for an exciting thriller. Though there is a bit of deus ex machina in places, and the unmarked perspective shifts were a bit jarring, the second half is paced well enough to be fun and intellectually engaging. While the doubts I experienced about MacLeod’s world-building continued to flutter in the back of my mind, I was able to get past them to enjoy the overall story.

The themes of faith, ecology, economics, justice, and identity that MacLeod explores were all interesting, but I felt that they all got fairly short shrift. With so many interesting concepts raising so many compelling questions, the relatively short novel was spread too thin to adequately explore all of them. Thankfully, novel’s the central question of machine faith gets just enough attention to ultimately be satisfying.

To be clear, despite its weaknesses Night Sessions is an enjoyable book, and it is ambitious. But it is not without its problems. It would have benefited greatly, I felt, from more rigorous attention to the methods of world-building, and to their relationship with the book’s pacing.

Fans of hard science fiction who are looking for an intellectual, mind-game playing book will likely enjoy Night Sessions, though they may find some of its conjecture irregular and implausible. Readers looking for a science fictional thriller will likely be disappointed by the book’s slow-paced first half, but may find that the conclusion makes up for the first half’s weakness. But readers who enjoy near future SF, and in particular those who are willing to deal with the challenges endemic to that sub-genre in exchange for stimulating extrapolation of current technological/economic trends, will find a lot to enjoy in Night Sessions.

REVIEW: The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

Title: The Clockwork Rocket
Author: Greg Egan
Pub Date: June 21, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An extremely detailed exercise in scientific world-building, though skimpy on character engagement.

Before I get into reviewing Greg Egan’s new book The Clockwork Rocket, I feel I must offer a disclaimer: I am neither a physicist nor a mathematician. The fact that I need to preface a discussion of the book with such a disclaimer should already tell you a lot about it. The Clockwork Rocket is hard science fiction, an impressive exercise in rationalist world-building that posits a universe whose physics differs significantly from our own. And while the book wins my applause for its science and world-building, I’m afraid the characters left a little to be desired.

The Clockwork Rocket follows the character of Yalda, a non-human female who lives on a planet quite unlike the Earth we know. She comes from a rural farming backwater, where few people are literate (despite the fact that her species can naturally manipulate their bodies’ shape and structure with enough precision to form symbols on their skin).

From the start of the book, Yalda is set apart from her neighbors. Unlike most of her siblings and cousins, she is introduced as a child who is discriminated against due to her lack of a predetermined mate and her large size. Using a child perspective character to gradually introduce the reader to some pretty complicated world-building is an old trick, but Egan pulls it off reasonably well. As Yalda learns about the physics of her world, we learn alongside her. When she becomes a teacher, we learn along with her students. The book is structured such that each chapter represents a particular event in her life, with jumps of indeterminate time between them – sometimes spanning days, other times entire years. We get to follow Yalda as she leaves the family farm, and begins to get a proper university education…still subject to her society’s discrimination and social expectation that females should be content to die giving birth to their children.

By the end of the first several pages, we are absolutely certain that we are not in Kansas anymore. If the structure introduces a problem, it is that there is a colossal amount of world-building to communicate. How much world-building would that be? Well, over on his web site Egan has posted over 80,000 words (that is not a typo) of notes on the physics and math alone. They are a thing of beauty. He’s even got cool tutorial videos! However, the strategy employed and the density of the world-building both lead the first half of the book to consist of little other than one scientist explaining something to another scientist (with copious diagrams and some explanation of formula). While the explanations are intellectually interesting, the lack of emotional tension and density of the scientific material may be off-putting to some readers.

From a plotting standpoint, two basic tensions are introduced. First, Yalda’s species has an interesting reproductive cycle. Females die giving birth, and if they delay reproduction for too long they risk involuntary parthenogenesis. This creates an interesting dynamic between the genders of her species, and leads to some thematic tension. Because she lacks a mate, Yalda is under particular pressure by the establishment of her society. As an independent thinker who aggressively seeks education and rejects the standard female role in her society, she challenges that establishment, and of course that establishment pushes back. It was refreshing to see that throughout the book, Yalda at no point needs to be rescued by a man. I can respect a hard SF story that puts a female scientist in jeopardy and doesn’t have her rely on an alpha male to save her.

The second tension is an impending apocalypse caused by two universes (with different rules of physics) colliding. As they collide, Yalda’s world is in danger of being destroyed. As a theoretical physicist and the discoverer of her universe’s flavor of relativity, Yalda is at the heart of her species’ efforts to save themselves. Their solution – to build a rocket ship that can be taken out of time, filled with top scientists, and then re-inserted into their timeline when the scientists’ descendents have figured out a solution – is ingenious. It is really cool that Egan’s alternative rules of physics make this plausible.

World-building vs Emotional Engagement in The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan

The Clockwork Rocket: Intensity of Reading Experience

One would think that both the societal pressure and the risk of apocalypse would lend Yalda’s story a degree of emotional tension, but unfortunately whatever tension is produced gets subsumed by the sheer volume of diagrams and scientific explanations. The physics are fascinating – but I found that I didn’t quite care about the character as much as I would have liked to. This is especially a problem for the first half of the book, where the reader’s learning curve is very high. Once we’re grounded in the physics, the character and her problems become more engaging. But two hundred pages of world-building is a lot to plow through before we can really start investing in our perspective character. The Clockwork Rocket is not unique in this issue: much hard SF shares this problem (Kim Stanley Robinson’s classic Red Mars comes to mind). While readers used to hard SF who enjoy the intellectual challenge may enjoy this, it is not for everyone.

Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket is particularly interesting when compared to Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Like Egan, Yu posits a universe with rules of physics entirely different from our own. But Yu’s book focuses on the internal and emotional experience of his everyman character. It is through his character that we understand Yu’s world-building. Egan’s strategy is to focus on the world-building first, and then have the character follow. These two different approaches yield very different reading experiences.

Ultimately, I found The Clockwork Rocket reasonably satisfying. But that satisfaction was very cerebral: the book resonated intellectually with me in the same way that a particularly neat thought experiment might. Fans of hard SF will love the complexity, rigor, and comprehensiveness of Egan’s world building. However, now that Egan’s universe is introduced and his characters are left in a fairly interesting situation, I hope the next book focuses more on the characters and less on the physics. The physics are great – but alone they can’t really carry the story.

REVIEW: Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley

Title: Cowboy Angels
Author: Paul McAuley
Pub Date: January 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
High-concept, hard SF alternate history with a spy-thriller edge.

I first came across Paul McAuley’s work sometime in the mid-to-late ’90s with his genetic cyberpunk (genepunk? I’ve always thought this should be a term) masterpiece Fairyland. Since then, I’ve always kept my eyes open for new McAuley novels and have found far more hits than misses among them. While his books span a variety of sub-genres (space opera, alternate history, genepunk, etc.), they share that high-concept imagination that underpins the best in science fiction. It was that same high-concept approach to alternate history which attracted me to his new novel, Cowboy Angels.

Books employing the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics are a dime-a-dozen, and so that on its own isn’t really enough to grab me. However, in Cowboy Angels, McAuley asks a question: what if the United States had found a way to travel between alternate versions of Earth at the height of the Cold War? In our real history, the Cold War was characterized by the domino theory, containment, détente, and proxy wars fought all over the world (Central America, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, South Asia, etc.). A downright fascinating time period in history, with the all-too-real primacy of the CIA, KGB, Mossad and other espionage agencies. McAuley’s brilliant concept is to introduce parallel worlds as a new front in this Cold War, which to my history-loving mind made me sit up and say: “Right on, this is going to be awesome!”

Cowboy Angels follows one Adam Stone, a retired special operations agent for the CIG (Central Intelligence Group). He has made his career as a spy working to spread US-style democracy across alternate versions of America. We first meet Adam Stone at the end of an era: American policy is changing with the election of the “peacenik” President Carter, and the nature of the Company’s missions is evolving. Adam Stone is comfortable with this change, having grown disillusioned by the manifest destiny ideology that had put him in moral quandaries in alternate Americas. But not all of his fellow agents are as comfortable with their country’s shifting values, and the book’s plot explores the lengths some people will go to in service of their ideology.

The novel’s plot is structured like a spy thriller, with Stone being called out of retirement to track down his friend and former partner, Tom Waverly. Waverly has gone on a killing spree across multiple alternate realities – killing the exact same woman over and over again. Neither the local authorities in those realities nor the Company know why. And so Stone gets reactivated to try and bring his friend in. What follows is a spy-thriller, but rather than have us jet off to exotic locales, McAuley takes us to exotic versions of the United States. Stone’s hunt for Waverly takes us to a kleptocratic New York decimated by nuclear war, to a United States that had been leveled in an apocalyptic World War III, and to a version of history very much like our own.

This is not a James Bond-style spy caper, where our hero gets to enjoy the good life in sunny Macao, Monaco, or other fancy places that begin with the letter “M”. While some of the alternate realities our hero visits seem bucolic, even pastoral “untouched” realities have their gritty undersides. And McAuley artfully exposes us to that, using blood and sinew to temper the novel’s escapism.

In terms of general concept, Cowboy Angels gets ten out of ten points for me. The idea of Kennedy-era expansionist/messianical foreign policy applying across alternate worlds practically begs to be written. Once again, McAuley’s ability to identify and execute on a particular concept is compelling.

However, for me, the book relied too heavily on this (admittedly awesome) concept to carry it. There were three weaknesses that detracted from my enjoyment of the book. Successful execution of both the novel’s concept as well as its spy-thriller plot structure requires distinctive settings, and the concept enables for some fascinating alternate versions of our world. While we get tantalizing glances into some fascinating settings (Nuclear Winter America, an American government-in-exile in Cuba, etc.), the majority of the book takes place in settings only slightly different from what we know. The settings we explore are different enough to remain distinct, but I think there was a wasted opportunity to explore some really interesting alternate versions of America. With so much of the book’s backstory dealing with the Cold War and the fight against Communism, it struck me as particularly odd that at no time did our hero venture into a Communist version of the USA.

The second, less significant, issue I found lay in some aspects of McAuley’s characterization. In particular, Stone’s romantic interest (which serves as a significant motivator through much of the book) struck me as particularly under-developed. Overall, I bought the character: I felt Stone was believable, and engaging. But I was unable to shake that arms-length disconnect and engage enough with the character enough to lose myself in his world(s). It was close – almost nailed just right – but I found that I just didn’t feel enough of Stone’s motivation. The solid plotting and awesome concept were enough to carry me over this weakness, but I wasn’t close enough to the character for McAuley’s gears and cogs at work to disappear.

The third, and least significant, problem I came across lay in the book’s pacing. Please don’t get me wrong, this is a fast-paced book, and it reads very quickly. However, the pacing is relatively unvaried throughout the text. This is an issue I often find in spy-thrillers: too often, I suspect their authors and editors believe readers equate escalating, no-respite events with being a page-turner. This leads to a go-go-go pacing which can be tiring if not offset and balanced against the emotional arc of the story. Just yesterday, Ursula K. Le Guin posted a great essay on this very subject. By giving his character – and the reader – room to catch one’s breath, McAuley could have deepened my emotional connection to the character and the story. By slowing down the story in a couple of places, the overall result would have been more emotionally powerful.

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Visually, the novel is attractive and stands out nicely. The cover was designed by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke and features an illustration by Sparth (aka nicolas bouvier). The cover really communicates the novel’s feel, contrasting futuristic Turing Gates against the decidedly-less-futuristic trains emerging from them.

Much as I enjoyed Stone’s adventure, my own personal tastes would likely have preferred to see the book’s backstory moved to the front. The transition from “manifest destiny” to “peace and reconciliation” and how that transition unfolds amongst the Company’s agents would be a really fascinating story, and one particularly relevant in today’s geopolitical environment. McAuley has set up a fascinating universe with infinite potential for clever, high-concept, and emotionally powerful stories. I would love to see a prequel set in this same universe exploring the Church Committee’s investigations into the Company’s clandestine operations.

Cowboy Angels is a very enjoyable book. The underlying concept is strong enough to overcome the minor weaknesses in setting, characterization, and pacing. That concept was enough to get my imagination firing, and often that’s exactly what I look for in SF. If you enjoy a good spy thriller, or get a kick out of playing with alternate histories, this book is definitely worth your time.

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