The Night Sessions

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(330)

Ken MacLeod, Orbit, £18.99

Ken MacLeod writes a form of science fiction that gleefully mixes social speculation, the recognisably mundane and the most extreme visions of where human society could go. He is a very playful writer, but one who is interested in serious issues.

The way MacLeod constructs his future societies should interest socialists. His characters believe passionately in different social ideals and he creates communities which follow through the logic of competing social theories - whether anarchist, Trotskyist or free market libertarians. As a rule, each is taken equally seriously and each is equally satirised.

His new novel, The Night Sessions, is set in a future after the end of the "Faith Wars". As characters recall their history it becomes increasingly obvious that these developed out of the post-9/11 conflict between fundamentalist Christianity and Islam.

This may seem a frighteningly simplistic and right wing way of understanding imperial conflict, but I suspect MacLeod would reply that it's not his definition, just the accepted historical understanding of the characters.

He implies more is behind it, without it being explicit. Old soldiers are compensated through an "oil for blood" system that is simply mentioned in passing.

The science fiction is combined with a part police procedural as a cop investigates the murder of a Catholic priest in Edinburgh.

It is also a thriller that gallops along at a rollicking pace. As well as a tightly driven plot this is a world of giant elevators that lift cargo into orbit, great satellites that attempt to reverse the ravages of global warming and personalities backed up like computer files.

And behind it is a philosophical musing on what it is to be "intelligent" and "self aware". Part of the plot hinges on whether one character is a robot pretending to be human or a person pretending to be a robot.

One character is a Christian fundamentalist, who is well aware of discrepancies between the Bible and the world, but believes god doesn't have to prove himself.

Again his belief system is treated with a degree of respect. Having said that, one moment of implausibility is a revelation that makes him act differently at a crucial stage late in the novel.

Characters are never easily divided into good and evil. The sympathetic police investigator remembers beatings he delivered to keep dissidents down. Even his wise assistant Skulk, the artificial intelligence housed in a body that looks like a miniature Martian fighting machine from H G Wells' War of the Worlds, has a questionable past - not least in the origin of his name.