I was having one of those bibliophiles’ moments of crisis: with so many books to read, what next? I looked through the stacks, read a few back cover blurbs, and stutter started a few pages. But none felt right. None clicked: this is the book to read now. What to do? I did what I always do in such situations: fall back on something dependable. Knowing in the very least his books are tightly plotted, possess sharp prose, and intelligently playful with politics and technology, I fell back on Ken Macleod, particularly his 2010 The Restoration Game. The final result: while not his best, Macleod remains in my TBT pile*.
An inference to a nation state’s continually evolving quest to bring itself back to some self-perceived glory day, The Restoration Game plays with the idea of political recursion, as told through the life of Lucy Stone. An admin for a small start-up computer games company, she receives a most unusual request one day from her mother: to design a computer game based on the history, legends, and myths of their native Krasssnia, a former Soviet bloc state. Lucy’s past a bit of a mystery, particularly the identity of her father and whether indeed her mother is an agent working for a government, researching the background details of the game soon draws her into a political sub-world she never thought existed, and just perhaps, may even bring her back to her native Krassnia to face the demons of the controlled state.
As many readers will guess shortly through the novel, The Restoration Game is something of a Russian nesting doll in terms of meta-reality. But, as James Lovegrove in his review states, “The big reveal, when it comes, takes some swallowing. MacLeod, however, is sensible enough to bracket it with irony.” This irony, in fact, saving the novel from falling into the depths of so much science fiction these days (i.e. irrelevancy), it courses back through the novel and puts into place the major theme.
While Macleod is working with ideas well worn in science fiction (spy suspense, political intrigue, virtual reality, gaming, etc.), he does so as only Macleod does these days. For the uninitiated, this means a healthy dose of communism—or thereabouts. Not banging on a pulpit in support of the paradigm, Macleod continues to use his fiction to explore the social and economic concept. In The Restoration Game’s case, this is through the world of computer game design and real world Russian (not Soviet, well, in fact, leftover Soviet) politics. Seemingly a response to the Ossetia War (Russo-Georgian War), his fictional Krassnia fills a role that Crimea and eastern Ukraine are unfortunately filling today. All too prescient, Macleod has a poke at Russian empire (re)building as the real world follows quickly in time.
Like Charles Stross’ Halting State, Macleod chooses to tell a portion of his narrative in the second person. Not redolent, Macleod did what Stross should have by limiting it to the “in-game” sections of the novel. The result is a narrative voice that effectively balances… its elements. Thematically, however, the two do strike different but relevant chords of political relevancy (despite what some may not notice**).
After two series, The Restoration Game marks Macleod’s fifth stand-alone novel in a row, not to mention fifth novel in six years. Though the ideas fly fast and free, The Restoration Game shows no sign of being rushed. The prose, at least in the first half, clicks engagingly into place, the plot is obviously worked out on something more than a napkin, and the politics bleed all too red into the real world. The novel ticked all the boxes I depend on Macleod to tick, and thus can’t complain.
*TBT – to be trusted when you just need to relax and enjoy a quality story. Other authors include but are not limited to another Macleod (Ian), another Ian (McDonald), Elizabeth Hand, Jeffrey Ford, Maureen McHugh, Adam Roberts, Paul Di Filippo, Jon Courtenay Grimwood…
**In doing my post-reading for The Restoration Game, I came across this review from self-informed genre spokesperson Justin Landon. Rather than falling back on the years of work of science fiction scholars (not an oxymoron), Landon invents his own definition of science fiction in order to frame his insubstantial review. Just where did those gate guards go, anyway?