The Restoration Game

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeodTo summarise: I think you might like this book if you

  • like Ken MacLeods earlier work
  • are interested in history, or big political questions
  • want realistic female protagonists (not superwomen)
  • enjoy reality leakage and sense of wonder in your fiction

Through most of The Restoration Game you can safely allow yourself to believe that you are reading a kind of contemporary spy thriller, although kind of light on the action and violence and heavy on the personal history of the geek girl protagonist Lucy.

Lucy works for the small computer game company Digital Damage, located in Edinburgh. The company gets drawn into complicated international conspiracies through Lucys mother, Amanda, who used to be a CIA "asset". Lucy becomes an important person for the big game of power and economic control because of her knowledge of the language and national myth of the small (fictive) Georgian province of Krassnia, where she grew up.

Ken MacLeod here continues his exploration of ideologies and economy post communism, a theme that you can recognise from earlier books. The intrigues around Krassnia are interesting on their own, and a reminder that there is a world geographically really close to us which we in our corner of Europe tend to know little about. Most of the story takes place in 2008, but the focus on Krassnia and the lack of any hints of terrorist scare gives it a subtle alternate history feeling. The war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia actually took place in our reality, so in any case it's very close to the reality we know.

Lucy is talked into making a Krassnian version of a Digital Damage game, which then plays a role in the political plots. The topic of using online games as a means for organising protests is already science fictional (in the spirit of that William Gibson quote: "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed"), but in this book it's also a tool for the hunt after a secret hidden in the Krassnian mountains.

Still, as I mentioned, there is not much to remind the reader that this is SF. As if compensating for the lack of gosh wow SF elements through the early parts of the book Ken MacLeod is flirting a bit with the science fiction fans and computer geeks among the readers. Lucy is both. The number of people in Sweden who recognize the atmosphere among SF fans meeting in a pub might be few, but I guess there are many Ken MacLeod readers who will smile at a UNIX/eunuchs misunderstanding. I'm easily charmed by injokes like these, which might pass by unnoticed by readers who don't share the frames of reference.

Someone who does not feel included by these things might still appreciate that Ken MacLeod makes Lucy a really cool person. She is very far from the "kick-ass" heroines we have often seen way too much of. She is interested in many things, but she doesn't know any martial arts. Her life is full of work and flat mates and cat and new boyfriend and preparations for the wedding of a close friend  a normal person, who just happens to get involved in crazy big things.

At the centre of the things that happen around Lucy is the "secret of the Vrai". This is the MacGuffin as they say in the world of cinema, the object that drives the plot. Something ancient hidden on a mountain, surrounded by rumors and guarded with firearms and superstition. This secret fails to catch my interest for a long time, hidden behind the political machinations and the things Lucy discovers about her own background. Suddenly, at the very end, this changes.

It's wonderful when an author manages to play with your assumptions and turn them on their heads. This is a really old trick, and in some kinds of science fiction nearly compulsory, but often enough it still works. After turning the last page there is no doubt that this story was pure science fiction all along.

I'm not going to say more than this, and telling you that there are surprises is already a bit of a spoiler. Although it's now scientifically proven that knowing a lot about the plot doesn't spoil the experience, I prefer not giving away too much.

If you read the book, find me and we will talk about the ending and some philosophical implications. That could be fun.