There is a twist to this novel, and it starts at the beginning when "you," Centurian Daphne Pontifex, discover an evil experiment by rogue AIs (or, as your culture knows them, Synthetic Psyches): the simulation of an entire human civilization.
Now read on . . .
Lucy Stone works for a Games Company, developing a swords and sorcery computer game based upon the legends of Krassnia, the obscure Caucasian former USSR region where she was born. Her mother Amanda published a celebrated translation of the Krassniad, the national epic, and it is her suggestion to Lucy that her company should develop this into a game that sets afoot a greater and more complex game in which Lucy (who already knows that her mother worked for the CIA) discovers just how extensive her family’s roots in and links with Krassnia (and the various organizations who are interested in the tiny country) are.
That was Lucy's other life—a happy childhood until "the scariest day in my life" (p. 31) when it became the "Other Thing". She is now a reasonably successful graduate, part of the Edinburgh social scene with a developing relationship, but we don't know that when the story proper starts. What we do know is that Lucy is in New Zealand, hoping to escape from this as-yet-undefined "Other Thing" when she is paged by the information desk. Her boyfriend, whom she hoped to escape to and keep out of all involvement with her past, has been detained by "friends from the East". And without knowing it, we get the picture that these "friends" are the sort of people who might make sure that if she sees Alex again it will be over a period of time. In installments. Piece by piece.
From there, the tension starts to rise . . .
This is a novel about the various levels of reality we get while playing games. It is also about the (real life) games of political intrigue following the collapse of the USSR. It is also, and importantly, a novel that tells these stories through science fiction. Lucy's story (broadly contemporary) is counterpointed by her mother's and an account given by Ross, one of several men who may be Lucy's father. (Before we think of Mamma Mia! Lucy articulates the comparison for us.) Ross becomes part of a group which is smuggling contraband—subversive literature, porn, computer chips—to Eastern Europe and later persuades Lucy to return to Krassnia in search of something which is certainly significant to Krassnian history. Why has Lucy been persuaded by her mother to insert the Krassniad into the game being developed by her company? The reason is deep in Krassnian history, involving the ruling class (the Vrai—is there a clue there in the name?) and a secret deep in the heart of the Krassnian culture. This is a secret, we are told, which appalled Stalin and Beria when they first learned of it; a secret that shadowy agencies of all complexions would kill to get. This secret, or rather how to get to it, is apparently hidden in the game. One character (another candidate for Lucy's father) admits to Ross, while interrogating him, that he knows there is a Higher Power. When we confront this evidence, it's a beautifully executed piece of science fiction.
In all its complexities, The Restoration Game is a sardonic picture of the "color revolutions" of the past few decades and the Byzantine and Machiavellian motives behind them (Lucy realises at one point that the newsprint quality of opposition newspapers is better than that of the government rag, because opposition newspapers get foreign funding: it's the simple and obvious answer and we are amused by her, and our, naivety in not noticing this fact before). Taking the novel's surface plot at face value results in a straightforwardly realistic story of the kind of political crises we have become familiar with over the past years, and some readers might prefer to do without Lucy's discovery that a conversation among a group of science fiction fans has more to do with the true state of affairs in her world than we might guess (well, than we might guess without having read the prologue). But Lucy is also a science fiction fan, and there are references to the nature of fandom hidden away in the novel which only fans will understand enough to chuckle over. Her first meeting with Alex, for instance, has her assuming that Alex is a science fiction reader for reasons which fans, with our mixture of critical analysis and self-congratulation, will find obvious ("'I'm interested in lots of things,' he said . . . 'Animals, history, weapons, costumes, words, books, tools, card games, rocks, fossils . . .' [but] 'science fiction?' 'I never read the stuff.'" (p. 57)) This sly dig at our own obsessiveness may be one of the weak points in the novel. It asks us to focus upon the wide-eyed wonder with which Lucy perceives her world, and as with many novels which depend upon an actual science fiction secret, you wonder if things could have been clearer if Lucy had recalled one or two of the SF novels she clearly must have read.
There is, in fact, a perfectly good reason for this, which we might infer when we get to the end of the novel and the not so much tying-up of loose ends as the identification that there are ends to be pulled together. But there are several other instances which suggest that Lucy, for all her savvyness, attitude, and charm, is actually quite dim. Be honest: if someone with an accent you can't identify but which sounds Australian is introduced as "a Kiwi [something]" (p. 53) might you not assume that they were from New Zealand and not actually involved with small flightless birds? Has the water been muddied by another character's semi-funny homophone screw-up, or is this more than drunken party comic business? It could be that I am reading more into this than I should, but there is a clear indication at the end that Lucy is a very unreliable narrator. When Daphne Pontifex returns to speak to Lucy, is this an epilogue that simply confirms the prologue, or should we start re-reading the book in order to uncover the true state of affairs? Unfortunately, it's hard to tell. If what we are allowed to infer about the relationship between Daphne's world and Lucy's is true, then MacLeod is holding a fistful of get out of jail free cards for when we start thinking about character inconsistencies.
So how successful is The Restoration Game? Ken MacLeod is one of our best exponents of near-future thrillers, and this is certainly a good one. As a novelist, MacLeod is terrific at what he clearly knows well; the collision of the SF and political worlds over the past few decades and, especially, the sense of paranoia which underlay the unraveling of the USSR and its satellites. Structurally, The Restoration Game moves well, with plot and counterplot weaving in and out of each other. What Lucy knows is contrasted with what Ross's account tells us so that, when Lucy returns to Krassnia to follow the path into the forbidden area dubbed The Zone we know that there is something world-shattering for her to find, and that this something is to do with alien interference in her world. But while this is world-shattering to Lucy, it is not exactly world-shattering to the reader, unless that reader is a comparative novice to SF. What Lucy discovers is certainly ingenious and fascinating enough for me not to want to reveal the details . . . but: while the way this revelation is presented is chillingly good, and what I had better refer to as "the nature of the evidence" is both amusing and mind-blowing, given the fact that the novel begins with the discovery of a virtual world "of fully conscious simulated humans living a history where . . . [s]omething changed everything" (p. xiii) I can’t say I quite shared Lucy's own surprise, Indeed, I suspect many readers will leave the book feeling conceptually somewhat shortchanged. We are, after all, looking for something like what is revealed, and even though the reader who knows their SF will be more interested in how this revelation is done than its nature, what Daphne Pontifex tells Lucy about her world is more or less what we have figured out anyway.
There is, however, another way of reading the epilogue. Sometimes an epilogue is where an author ties up the loose ends, but sometimes it isn’t. If SF is about understanding the world, then the SF element in The Restoration Game is not—as I hinted above—extraneous to a broadly realistic novel about fall-of-communism politics but essential to what is going to happen to Lucy (and her world) after we close the book. Lucy has learned much about the world she lives in, but this world, and its history, are to continue and her knowledge is essential to that history. It may indeed be a secondary world: but it and its inhabitants are still real. If we apply what Lucy learns to our world—that is, if we come to an understanding that what we see as the inevitability of history is actually something provisional and quite shaky, that we can in a very real sense come to a new understanding of our world and reinterpret it—then we have a different novel. The SF element jolts our mind into seeing, not the world of the fiction, but our world, and its possibilities. The game/simulation element becomes more than a plot device but a hint about how we should read the book. A good science fiction novel is a simulation machine for changing the world, and this may be what Ken MacLeod is reminding us.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the School of English, and a widely published critic. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously unpublished novel by John Wyndham. He is the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.