Ken MacLeod, The Night Sessions. Near-future Scotland, recovering from a post-9/11 replay of the Wars of Religion. Churches are allowed to exist only on a private level, with the state studiously ignoring their existence. So when Detective Adam Ferguson begins to investigate the murder of his priest, his attention — and his superiors’ — is on the political and bureaucratic consequences almost as much as on the rapidly-escalating series of killings.
MacLeod’s science fiction is, among much else, a vehicle for satire on the preset. Here it’s most entertaining when confined to small details: Creationist theme parks, for example, or gangster-ridden “Capitalism with Russian Characteristics”. His broader swipes on religion mostly fall flat. Towards the end there is a particularly ludicrous conversion as a True Believer is confronted with the contradictions of the bible* — a shaky plot device on the biblical literalism which a certain kind of atheist shares with only the most extreme of protestant sects.
The science fiction elements are largely window-dressing, with the exception of the robots. Macleod’s robots are superior not only in strength and intelligence, but in their ability to understand human emotion. They unnerve people, even though they are no longer given humanoid form to avoid this very problem. Police robots are loyal and devoted sidekicks to their masters, and the strength of this bond is one of the assumptions driving the plot. And, finally, there’s the question of whether robots could be affected by religion.
These are all interesting questions, but the pace of the book prevents MacLeod exploring them. The Night Sessions is fundamentally a thriller and a police procedural, and theories of robotic personhood have to take a back-seat to that.
* ETA: later, it occurs to me that the nature of this is partly a comment on the human/robot comparison. The human is defeated in the same way robots are according to B-movie cliche: show them a contradiction, and wait for them to blow a fuse. Meanwhile the robots, emotionally advanced far beyond human level, have no trouble on this point.