Saturday, 4 April 2009

Credibility on Creationism

Back to science fiction again, this time a novel entitled The Night Sessions by a chum of Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod.

Set in a post-global warming, post-peak oil, post-Faith Wars future, the novel centres around a police investigation into the murder of a number of religious figures in Scotland. While things have settled down since the world came to terms with this triumvirate of calamities, these murders in the now-underground faith community suggests a potential return to the past. The murders also have an international dimension in that they appear connected to a series of sermons, the Night Sessions, delivered by a creationist to an eager flock of robots that work in a creationist theme park in New Zealand. The investigations also turn up a connection to the bad old days of the Faith Wars, a development that hints at robots "getting religion".

In theory, this all sounds pretty good. It touches on a number of topics that I find perennially interesting, principally creationism, but also climate change and, sad to say, robots. But it seemed to me a completely flat, tone-deaf, science fiction-thriller combo that had taken only a dash of these genres' high points, but a long swig of their weaknesses. So while we have space elevators and (brief) dissections of free will, we also have an unholy alliance of two-dimensional characters and a labyrinthine plot, such that the novel quickly becomes an over-complicated puzzle that you couldn't care less about.

The novel also contains a singular howler in the sudden, Damascene conversion of the main creationist character from his literalist beliefs. Anyone who's ever dealt with creationists will know that no amount of evidence or reasoned argument will shift them from a faith-based to a reality-based perspective [*]. So making a character suddenly realise that their belief in crazy-talk like flood geology is misplaced (to say the least), comes over as simply unbelievable in a novel already straining its reader's patience.

I have to add that setting what's ostensibly a globally significant story in a lazy future-Scotland seemed altogether too parochial to me too. Almost certainly because I'm from there, but it did feel at times that MacLeod had merely looked out of his window, wrote what he saw, then added a few details (like a gender-bending MI5 agent) to push it safely into the future.


[*] That's less true when people are young, and their world-view and self-image is less invested in a crazy literal reading of a single religious work, but after about age 20, and certainly by age 30, people tend not to budge (... if I can stereotype wildly).

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