The Night Sessions
by Ken MacLeod
(Pyr/Prometheus Books, 2012)
263 pp.; $17.95 (Paperback)
Science fiction and religion don't mix. (Readers of this journal probably believe that religion and anything don't mix.) This is, I suppose, because the science in science fiction isn't one of the categories--such as theism or eschatology--that religion is traditionally preoccupied with. Ken MacLeod's forays into theology in his new sci-fi novel, The Night Sessions (new for the U.S. market; it was published in Britain four years ago), aren't as egregious as, say, the pretentious and banal mysticism in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the spiritual claptrap in the Matrix trilogy, but they are problematic. They also raise an interesting issue, which I'll discuss in due course.
The Night Sessions takes place in Scotland, in a somewhat dystopian future. (Has a work of science fiction ever not taken place in a dystopian future?) Solar shields have been invented to impede global warming. Police surveillance is ubiquitous and elaborate. The civilization MacLeod delineates is also, in effect, post-religious. Appalled and fed up after the chaos and horrors of the Faith Wars (which occur after our own era but before the beginning of the novel), progressive nations implemented the Great Rejection (of religion) and the Second Enlightenment:
[I]t wasn't as though the Church of Scotland, or Scotland's other mainstream Churches, and indeed other religions, had done anything to deserve the Great Rejection. They'd been innocent victims, collateral damage, caught up in the blast radius of recrimination against the Dominionists and Dispensationalists, the Scientific Creationists and Christian Zionists, the corrupt and cynical elements of the Roman hierarchy, the Islamist jihadis and the Third Temple zealots and all the rest who'd done the real damage in the Faith Wars .... The fall of the great religious establishments had been as swift and sudden as that of communism. After decades of religious inspiration or exacerbation of terrorism, fundamentalism, apocalyptic wars, creationism, climate-change denial, women's oppression, poverty, ignorance, and disease, it was payback time. In a variety of forms, secularism had swept the board in all the advanced countries. No politician with any religious taint had a chance of national election. Every prohibition influenced by religion had been repealed. Every trace of religious influence had been excluded from the education system, and no exemptions from the secular state education system were allowed.
In the societies portrayed in this novel, the religious can still practice their faith, but they are greatly outnumbered by the nonreligious, and they remain marginalized, impotent, and disdained.
In this brave new whorl, a Roman Catholic priest has been blown up. Soon after, a Catholic bishop is shot to death and a suicide bomber kills dozens of men, women, and children at an anti-creationist geology exhibit. Detective Inspector Adam (symbolism, anyone?) Ferguson is charged with finding the guilty parties. He quickly realizes that the crimes are ideologically motivated. But which ideology do the perpetrators adhere to? Are they militant atheists? (The attack on the geology exhibit could be a ruse to confuse the authorities.) Or perhaps they are fringe religious extremists with a grudge against Catholics and those who embrace evolution. Among the religious extremists under suspicion are the members of the Congregation of the Third Covenant, who believe that
the states that derive from the English Revolution--Britain, the British Commonwealth and the United States--were bound in a special way to God by the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant. …