Lucy Stone works as a game designer in Edinburgh. Digital Damage is making a Massively multiplayer online role playing game based on dark ages Britain. With Zombies and other odd things. Slaving away at this game, Lucy gets a call from her mother, a fellow émigré from a troubled region in the Caucaus. Her mother asks her to repurpose this gaming project to be a virtual meeting place useful to dissidents seeking to make a Ukrainian style color revolution in their homeland region of Krassnia. Her mother is an expert in Krassnian history and mythology and reskinning the MMORPG to Krassnian with her work, the Krassniad, should be relatively easy.
Doing things that might facilitate revolutions is a dangerous business. It is no surprise to the reader that this quickly gets Lucy wrapped up in international espionage, and a mystery at the heart of Krassnia that Lucy is strangely suited to be asked to go and investigate. Even with all of the troubles in the region, sounds simple, right?
But things, indeed, the entire world, is not quite as it seems.
The Restoration Game is the latest novel from Ken MacLeod, and it is a novel that for the most part in the day-to-day nature of the text is not a science fiction novel at all, but rather a technothriller of the first order. Chop out the prologue, which gives the game away immediately, and for 90% of this book, the novel doesn’t seem to be science fiction at all. Sure, Krassnia doesn’t show up on any maps, but that just makes the novel Ruritanian (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruritania) rather than science fiction.
Quite by accident, gentle readers, I came across a skeleton key to this novel, informing me as to part of what Macleod is doing. Although I take pride in my knowledge of geography and history, Krassnia was completely unfamiliar to me. Although it sounded made up, I decided to do a little web searching. I came across a blog post from the author himself, 5 years ago (well before the novel’s publication).
This bit is why it came up on my search results:
…this was partly inspired by J. B. S. Haldane’s essay on religious liberty, where he discusses the imaginary republic of Krassnia. In Krassnia the official religion is dialectical materialism, but there are still traces of the old religion, mechanical materialism. When the chief commissar is inaugurated he is anointed with oil by the chief materialist philosopher, and this is widely understood to be a relic of the belief that man is a machine, and needs oiling.
And with that single paragraph, the entire novel, the framing device and everything Macleod is doing in the novel makes a heck of a lot more sense. For you see, and it is spoiled in the first pages, the world of Lucy Stone is not real at all, but rather a Simulated world. While Lucy and others use the Matrix as a reference point, the plot and especially the ending remind me instead of a different movie that explores the same tropes and themes: The Thirteenth Floor. The parallels are stunning, down to the fact that Lucy works as a game designer, creating a MMORPG, and the world of the Thirteenth Floor has the main character doing essentially the same thing. There are other strong parallels between the movie and this novel, enough that if Macleod had not seen the movie, I’d be highly surprised.
The rest of that paragraph, unpacked, explains why MacLeod would set this in a piece of the former Soviet Union, and the motives of the denizens of the inhabitants of the world above the world of the novel are further clarified by that quote.
But enough about what Macleod was trying to do with the book, how does the novel work as a novel? Well, the main thing about the novel is that aside from the opening framing device and the last fifth of the novel, there is nothing science fiction about the book at all. It’s a pure technothriller with a fair amount of Russian history and politics wrapped into it. Mind you, its extremely good and entertaining technothriller, as Lucy gets wrapped up in the coils and machinations of a number of, shall we say, factions. Lucy is an extremely well-drawn character with a sensibility and point of view that is complicated, complex and well-conceived. The book is written, except the framing device and a couple of things that Lucy reads, entirely in her first person point of view. I liked her immediately, and felt very at home with her and her mindset. At one point, a twist in the plot made me think of a movie (no, not the Thirteenth Floor), and I was stunned that, a sentence later, Lucy had the exact same thought. I laughed in delight.
Anyway, a sample of what it’s like to be Lucy:
A couple of months after I started working for Digital Damage , I played a prank on the lads. I snatched an opportunity of everyone’s being coincidentally out of the office on various brief errands to set all of the desktop’s Google language preferences to Klingon ¹. One by one, the lads returned from the post office or the sandwich shop or the fire escape and sat down and continued working or (it being lunchtime) doing a little recreational web-browsing. Whether working or slacking, the lads use Google a lot.
I sat back, like the evil H.R. cat in Dilbert, and waited for the cries of anguish to erupt.
Nothing happened. Work continued without interruption all afternoon. No one said anything about it. Sean sent us all an email reminding us to lock our screens or log off every single time we left the desk “even if its only for a slash or a smoke.”
My respect for the team went up a level.
The other thing I liked about the novel is the trip to Krassnia. I have friends who had been behind the Iron Curtain. I never have been, even if, bizarrely, in my youth, I once had a slide projector and book that included in the set of tour books, one on Soviet-era Russia. The journey to Krassnia and the doings in Krassnia have a strong sense of place that evokes a corner of Soviet Russia that wasn’t. Krassnia, although completely fictional, became a very real place through the pages of the book.
The book was nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Award for best novel. Do I think that was a good decision? Well, I keep coming back to it, but it it is sitting there, inescapably. Although, in the retrospect, the novel certainly is science fiction, true blue, in the reading of it, for the most part, it doesn’t read as science fiction at all. If Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy (as unlikely as that would be, given the novel’s politics) had written this book, it would be filed away in general fiction. I feel, honestly, just the tiny bit cheated that the Simulation premise of the novel gets so little text as compared to everything else.
Even given the interesting locations, and the carousel of interesting characters, plots, and twists and machinations that entertainingly swoop around and into around Lucy Stone and her strong first person voice, what I wanted from The Restoration Game, and did not get, was a little more science fiction than I ultimately received.
¹I checked, you CAN do this. Heck, you can set it to a couple of unusual things, including Elmer Fudd. Seriously.