Do Protestant Terrorist Robots Have Souls?

Ken MacLeod's latest novel, The Night Sessions, is about a near-future Earth that's ruled by atheists who have driven Christians into the closet. An intricate murder mystery about Protestant terrorist factions of the future, The Night Sessions is also a strangely moving tale of the emotional bonds between humans and robots.

The "Faith Wars" have purged governments in the East and West of their religious leaders, and left in their wake a fairly peaceful world order. Still, the population is filled with people and sentient robots haunted by memories of the violent "God Squads" who led the anti-religious purges. In this novel, released last month in the UK, MacLeod has stuck to the near-present time frame of his last novel The Execution Channel, while also bringing in the kinds of far-future concerns about posthuman selfhood that made his Engines of Light trilogy so brilliant.

MacLeod has given us a crisp novel of speculation made achingly realistic by his characters' believable, messy lives. Our protagonist is Ferguson, a former God Squad thug-turned-detective trying to repent for his violent past by being the most ethical police officer he can.

When Catholics start turning up dead in Edinburgh, he has to overcome his anti-religious prejudices to puzzle out a Protestant plot that stretches back centuries — and that has something to do with a group of evangelical Christian robots who live in a Creationist amusement park in New Zealand. Ferguson's prejudices, it turns out, are not just the result of his staunch atheism. He also has much to learn about the subjectivity of the so-called KIs, or kinetic intelligences, who work and live among humans.

Though the Faith Wars may have purged Christian souls from politics, they created new "souls" in the bodies of military robots who somehow attained sentience on the battlefields. These KIs have been transferred out of their dangerous, soldier bodies and into delicate frames that look like miniature Tripods from War of the Worlds. Still others exist in humanoid bodies, shunned by biological humans who find their artificial faces disturbing due to the uncanny valley effect.

Just as humans returning from war are often wracked by a lifetime of traumatic memories and injuries, so too are the KIs. Especially the ones who have been literally transferred into new bodies and rejected by the people they fought to protect. As Ferguson and his KI partner Skulk begin to unravel the mystery of the Catholic murders, they must come to grips with the possibility that robots have inherited the religious wrath of the humans who died beside them in battle. And they've taken to religious terrorism just as they've taken to consciousness.

There is something brilliant in MacLeod's idea that when robots achieve human-style intelligence that they'll become as irrational as humans too. There's no word yet on when the US release date will be for this fascinating novel, so if you're outside the UK you're going to have to special order it. Which is too bad, because this is precisely the kind of book that US audiences need to be reading.

Quite simply, it's a story of a future where religion has lost its hold on politics and yet ethical values have survived — even among atheists. Of course, this being a MacLeod novel, there is also a healthy dose of pure adventurous fun, too. We follow the thread of our murder mystery up and down space elevators, as well as in and out of goth clubs packed with hot tranny girls and high tech DJs during Edinburgh's famous Fringe Festival. A pleasingly spicy mashup of wise politics and smartass ethics, The Night Sessions is both hard to resist and hard to put down.

The Night Sessions [via Amazon.uk]