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‘The making of artificial intelligence is one of the proudest boasts of the secularists’, said Campbell. ‘Next to artificial life, it’s the greatest triumph for their materialism. Perhaps greater. They claim to have done what Christians once claimed could be done only by God – creating a rational soul. Would this triumph not turn to ashes in their mouths if their own creations were to acknowledge the true Creator?’

I have a confession. Back in the summer of ’03 I was living and working in Edinburgh. I lived out of the Central Library, just opposite the Royal Scottish Museum where I worked in a restaurant. I would take out fourteen books at a time and read them over a month or so, then return them for the next load. Those were pleasant days. I recall taking out Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division. I remember reading it. To be honest though, I have no memory what it was about at all. I am not even sure I finished the book.

Not an auspicious start for a review, is it?

In The Night Sessions MacLeod maps the conflicts of our time, a diabolical festoon of resource wars and radical religious fudamentalism, on to a near-future society where the Western world underwent an event known as The Rejection. All forms of religious belief have been driven underground. A brutal, second Enlightenment took hold, America was swallowed in a destructive civil war and artificial intelligence escalated the spread of the conflict.

John Richard Campbell is a young man fascinated with robotics. His work in a New Zealand preserve for animatronic models has given him an interesting outlet for his religious beliefs. He has begun to proselytize to his charges and what’s more, they are listening to what he has to say. When a secret sect in Edinburgh hears of him, Campbell is initiated into The Free Congregation of West Lothian. During the same visit, he meets a virtual reality dj Dave Warsaw and his partner Jessica at a club night in a former church. Campbell is repulsed and secretly intrigued by the orgiastic scenes created by Warsaw’s mastery of music and image. His faith has hidden him from such activities, a faith that makes him especially vulnerable to manipulation.

A year passes and a series of murders in Edinburgh begin to rise tensions throughout the secular world. The targets are clergymen, former soldiers in the Faith Wars, with hints of inter-fundamentalist cell reprisals. Adam Ferguson leads the investigation, using bleeding edge technology to identify patterns in the murders, compile every scrap of data on file regarding the victims and their surroundings. However, he finds himself confounded by the complexity of the case. There are also fears of a much great attack at the secularist nations, so thoroughly denuded of religious faith that Ferguson has to remind his officers out of courtesy to refer to the murder victims by the title of ‘Father’, or ‘Bishop’, and not the prefix ‘Citizen’.

MacLeod’s novel is a vast spider-web of ideas and supposition as to the future course of our society. The ‘Rejection’, I am sure sounds like Richard Dawkins’ fondest fantasy, but the story does not shy away from depicting the overzealousness of the anti-religious factions in this new world. His vision of future developments in surveillance technology and A.I. is also exciting and playful. Ferguson’s robot Skulk is more a partner than an investigative tool, complete with a winning sense of humour.

I also enjoyed the familiar sights of Edinburgh being mildly tweaked to fit this depiction, despite surviving catastrophic sectarian conflict. MacLeod’s characters are for the most part Scots. There is in fact quite a large cast. The prologue that introduces Campbell serves to fix him in the reader’s minds before his eventual return in the latter-half of the book.

If some of this sounds familiar, perhaps you are a fan of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, which also had the premise of a futuristic society running headlong into a conflict with fundamentalist religion. The difference is MacLeod’s book has balls. The ending is much more satisfying. Yes, I am still bitter.

This is a book that I will have no trouble remembering. A thrilling and inspiring read.

I know where I am. I know more than they think. Earlier today someone with an officious voice said, close to my ear, ‘It is touch and go as to whether she will ever regain consciousness.’ Touch and go. Makes it sound like a children’s game.

This morning I had a talk with someone about reviewing. I argued that often I will rave about a book that might have a sloppy structure, or stereotypical characters, but it will get one thing just right and I’ll love it. It is that one connection with me as a reader that matters the most. However, on occasion I find myself reading something that is competent in every respect, but simply put leaves me cold.

A disturbed young woman boards a train to Edinburgh to meet her sisters and then moments later leaves on a return trip to London.  Then Alice Raikes, while standing at a traffic crossing, steps directly into the path of oncoming cars and is seriously injured.

The family gathers at her bedside in hospital, her parents Ben and Ann desperately trying to understand what may have compelled their daughter to try and take her own life. We discover that Alice has lived a turbulent life touched by tragedy. Formerly a free spirit, more vivacious than her bookish siblings and reserved father, she has been left broken by an abruptly ended relationship. Was it this that led to her suicide attempt?

The reader witnesses the thoughts of three generations of the Raikes women. Alice and Ann have more in common than they know, while the deceased Elspeth continues to appear as a ghostly presence throughout the novel. Her function in the plot is to define Ann as a young girl whose life turned in an unexpected direction and before she knew it she was a mother to three young women, recently also a grandmother.

One of the few men to assume the role of narrator briefly is Alice’s lover John. Aside from the gentle natured Ben Raikes, he is one of the few positive male characters featured in the novel. O’Farrell defines the men in Alice’s past, as well as Ann’s, are domineering and grasping. A Jewish Londoner trapped between his love for the wild-natured Scot and his family’s traditions, John is portrayed as an almost entirely selfless character. Everyone else is either living a secret double life, or blind to the problems of others.

This is a book about self-involved people frustrated by the course of their lives. Alice’s suicide attempt appears to be premeditated, with the majority of the novel concerned with unravelling the possible cause. The action skips from the perspectives of the three Raikes women, backwards and forwards through time. In some ways I found this book reminiscent of Everything Is Illuminated, also concerned with secret family histories and tragic eruptions. The post-modern reliance on narrators who lie to the reader as much as themselves is a common device, not to mention the time skipping (although over a shorter period of time in O’Farrell’s novel).

Whereas Safran Foer tackled his mashed-up style with alacrity, however, O’Farrell’s approach is far more leaden. I felt no sympathy to either Alice, or Ann, who both after a time seemed to become interchangeable. Despite one of them being in a coma for the duration of the novel! The inclusion of a sub-plot relating the stresses placed on young love due to different cultural traditions, in this case Judaism, felt tacked on.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, my chief frustration with this book is that overall it is quite well written, but I was simply unable to engage with the proceedings and was left wishing it was several chapters shorter. Ultimately After You’d Gone feels like a digression into the lives of three women twisted by sadness, one that you could afford to miss.

At times it felt as though we were playing two different codes. We saw the paddock as an ever-changing pattern of lines. The Irish, on the other hand, saw the field as a sort of steeplechase, covered with low barriers and walls which as far as they were concerned were there to smash into. They believed in luck. They were like kids taking it in turns to kick a pebble down a bumpy road.

We longed to tell them what they were doing wrong.

I have been to two football games in my life. If you think that’s bad, neither game was even the same kind of football. In 2008 I went to see a Sydney Swans game with my cousin playing at home. Years before then, when I was still a child and to be honest I cannot remember now how old I was, my dad brought me to see Ireland’s international rugby team play in Dublin. I cannot remember who the opposing team was, although I have a strong suspicion we lost. When I was a kid, Ireland seemed to lose a lot of games, regardless of the sport. Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France in 1987 was like the second coming of Christ as far as my dad was concerned, more so because the cyclist had broken our pan-sport losing streak.

What I’m getting at is that sport never really figured largely in my life. Yeah I’ve been to the pub to watch a few games, with the Duke off Grafton Street a great venue for a rugby international if you’re that way inclined, but over the years I simply did not take any interest in sport generally. So to find an historical, if poetic, account of the 1905 All Blacks Originals’ campaign not only readable, but gripping, riveting stuff, was something of a shock.

The opening of the book describes the long sea voyage taken by the New Zealand team, travelling up along the coast of South America, before making a break for the Atlantic. The men take to practicing their manoeuvres on deck. Eventually during a break on shore, they return to the vessel with pumpkins to catch and toss. The women passengers on board stick below deck in the saloon where it is nice and warm. The All Blacks can see each other’s faces freezing in the cold, drifting across a vast ocean travelling further and further away from home. Together they are farmers, civil servants, husbands, miners, bankers, factory workers and amateur sportsmen. Their manager George Dixon instructs them in a series of exercises to build up a team dynamic, such as describing the women in their lives, or if they have none, to imagine one based on the traits described by their fellow players. Throughout the book Dixon invents more and more bizarre bonding exercises, until the team becomes a cohesive whole. Finally the shores of England come into view. Many of the men are descended from immigrants who left the British Isles, some more recently than others. It is a strange homecoming, to a place far away from home.

The second half of the book describes the team’s epic series of wins against local clubs and international teams such as England, Scotland and Ireland (although they run into a spot of bother with the Welsh). As their fame grows, the men measure their fame by the numbers drawn to greet them at the train stations, the sophistication of the menus served to them at dinner, or their column inches in the newspapers. Their meteoric popularity soon eclipses other events in the world, such as massacres in Odessa and war in Japan. The men dressed entirely in black are at the centre of the world for the duration of their tour and defeat becomes a rare experience they are almost curious to experience.

Lloyd mixes history with fiction, prose and poetry, to dizzying effect. There is a telling sequence where the All Blacks team are invited to dine with Oxford scholars, who lecture them on different schools of learning (the haka, they are informed, is similar to the war cry of Achilles). Lloyd’s group-mind narrator states –

What we knew

What we understood

Had no beautiful language at its service

Lacked for artists and sculptors

What we knew was intimate

As instinct or memory

That to me is the central point of this book – to make of the game something alike to Art.

Wonderful.

I had seen men die violently before; indeed I had killed a few myself in the Matabele War; but this cold-blooded indoor business was different.

Buchan’s classic novel has been adapted to film at least three times (with another due in 2011), a television series and even a stage play. Last time I was in London I was strongly tempted to check it out, but I am glad I got a chance to read the novel first, as the Broadway production takes a more comic approach to the material. Alfred Hitchcock’s film in 1935 probably was inspirational for one of his later ‘American films’, North By North West, which has a similar plot of an unremarkable man becoming swept up into an international conspiracy. Furthermore the timing of Hitchcock’s film is relevant, with the original novel also being published for the purposes of propaganda in 1915.

Richard Hannay is our hero, a middle-aged bachelor who was born in Scotland and made his fortune in Rhodesia. Having settled in London he discovers that he has become bored with his life of easy leisure. He longs for a return to the dangers of working in a mine, or the wild beauty of the veldt. His prayers are answered when a strange fellow named Scudder, an American who claims his life is in danger. Hannay patiently lets the man tell his story, a thrilling yarn of international espionage, Zionist plots and an already lit powder-keg set to drive the chancelleries of Europe to war. Despite the extravagant claims of the stranger, Hannay finds himself believing this rum tale and agrees to hide him from his shadowy pursuers.

Scudder proves to be a master of disguise and conspires with his host to hide his identity. Hannay observes him writing copious notes in a little black book, presumably a record of his investigation. Excited at the sudden injection of adventure into his life, the retired Rhodesian mining engineer enjoys aiding his companion in his efforts to prevent Europe falling into war. Then one day he returns to find Scudder dead in his home. Shocked, Hannay has no choice but to flee the scene of the crime. His tale is so outlandish no police man would believe it. He takes Scudder’s black book and takes the first train to Scotland, where he hopes his childhood memories of the landscape will help him evade pursuit. Everywhere he goes he sees strange figures watching him, just as the dead man had described. Finding himself hunted through the moors and mountain ridges of the Scottish highlands, Hannay has to think quick on his feet, disguising his appearance as Scudder had. His only hope is to decipher the cryptic code he finds in the American’s black book that may prove his innocence and identify the threat amassing against England.

Buchan’s redoubtable hero became a recurring character in his fiction, the archetypal ‘stiff-upper lip’ chap with a ready fist and a gentlemanly manner. The novel itself is a product of its time and not just due to the anti-semitic remarks attributed to Scudder (although a character later remarks that this was an ‘odd bias’, of his). Published in 1915 it is similar to the Riddle of the Sands, a jingoistic work released in 1903 that strongly encouraged the idea of an impending European conflict. The difference with The Thirty-Nine Steps is that it came out after hostilities had already commenced, all the better to reinforce the case for war. The men and women Hannay encounters during his hazardous flight across Scotland are mostly good, hearty ordinary folk. He becomes more convinced of the importance of succeeding where Scudder failed, so that the people of Britain should be protected from a disastrous war. Scotland itself is infested with spies from abroad, able to disguise themselves in a blink of an eye. Hannay, and by extension readers of the time, must be vigilant to ensure they do not manage to sabotage the defenses of the country.

Also particular to the setting of the novel is that peculiar condescension towards the Scots. I was reminded of my favourite scene from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace whenever Buchan essays a Scottish brogue. I find the smug superiority strange, as the author himself was raised in Scotland and the landscape is described beautifully, as only one who lived there could achieve.

Despite some of the dated attitudes present in the book, it remains an entertaining read. A bladdy good yarn!

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