The Restoration Game by Ken Macleod

Orbit, 2010. 303 p.

MacLeod’s last novel had, as well as the usual SF, elements of the police procedural to it, not to mention a setting which featured Edinburgh heavily. In this book he mixes SF with the espionage thriller and makes an excellent fist of the spy novel aspect. Is he thinking of moving away from the genre?

In the one time Caucasian Autonomous Region of Krassnia, one of those strange enclaves of the former Soviet Union where ethnic strife both within it and with its neighbours was just waiting to break out when that state disintegrated, there is a mountain which hides a secret. A secret which when filmed in 1952 put the fear of God into Stalin and Beria. Krassnia has for centuries been divided between its habitual rulers the Vrai and the underling Krassnars. The mountain is said to hold the secret of the red-haired Vrai and bad things happen to ordinary Krassnars who venture there. (I pondered the significance of vrai being the French word for true but couldn’t work out if there was any.)

Despite her being a US citizen currently living in Edinburgh – again a welcome setting for part of a MacLeod novel – Luciane Stone’s family has been tangled up in Krassnian affairs (the word is apposite) for four generations; indeed she was born and schooled there. In her job with an Edinburgh computer game company she has incorporated almost all the Krassnian folklore that she learned at her mother’s knee into their latest project “Dark Britannia.” Cue much speculation regarding simulations and simulacra. Another game project in hand is of a timeline where the Spartacus revolt in ancient Rome was not crushed. As a consequence Rome did not fall in the fifth century and the industrial revolution occurred much earlier than in Lucy’s world. The Romans reach Mars.

When the call comes from her mother to produce a version of “Dark Britannia” specifically aimed at the Krassnian market Lucy becomes embroiled in all the shenanigans you might expect in a spy/thriller story. As this scenario demands, Lucy does of course ascend the mountain, where she encounters a strangeness illuminating the nature of reality.

While fizzing with speculation, The Restoration Game blends the SF and spy elements a little awkwardly, with the more down to earth sequences fully realised and the fantastical standing somewhat aloof from them – at times appearing almost as an add-on. Nevertheless MacLeod’s prose enables the book to speed by. It is a page turner.

My reservations about the central tenet of the main SF element constitute a spoiler. Do not read on if you wish to avoid this. Get yourself the book instead. It’s a very entertaining read.

SPOILER
SPOILER

SPOILER

The SF element of The Restoration Game turns on the Earth of Lucy Stone, our Earth, being a simulation, run by Synthetic Psyches in a universe in which the Romans did reach Mars.

While this is an acceptable speculation and characters in such a simulation would “feel” (or experience, if you will) in a similar way to “real” people and would not be able to tell the difference – unless subject to the sort of evidence that The Restoration Game postulates – it is dangerously close to being “all a dream.” In dreams, of course, logic and internal consistency are not necessarily strong suits and a story set within one can be rendered meaningless.

Now, MacLeod’s simulated world definitely does not lack logic nor internal consistency but there is a wider sense that if the characters we read about are merely (merely?) simulations why should we care about them?

This is a philosophical conundrum for any reader of fiction, however, since all fictional characters are, by definition, not real. Even those based on historical or actual people are not real in the sense that a living breathing human is.

In this regard, though, to make characters within a work of fiction actual simulations is possibly a step too far. Even if we inhabit the same simulation ourselves.

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