Monday, 30 December 2013

Ken MacLeod: The Restoration Game

The Restoration Game is another one of those books which sat in the third floor operations room until I packed it up, somehow never getting read because there was always something else I wanted to do instead. This is partly because Ken MacLeod is always improving literature and I will usually do almost anything before I turn to that kind of thing. It was mostly because The Execution Channel was pretty depressing and I didn't feel like a repeat of it.

MacLeod's been part of my "must buy the next one" stable of SF writers since I found his first book, The Star Fraction, back in the 1990s. Even more than Kim Stanley Robinson, he tends to write about a future in which the ideas of the left have somehow been made to work, and so he makes for a welcome antidote to the capitalist triumphalism which tends to dominate SF in much the same way that it dominates our real world. So he's a good ideas man, but not always a huge amount of fun to read; the last time I re-read any of his stuff, it was when I was catching up with the background of the Fall Revolution series and realised I needed to re-read The Star Fraction in order to understand what was happening in the third volume. He's one of those writers whose books I keep so that I can lend them to people rather than because I expect to read them again.

The Restoration Game is positively chirpy by comparison with a lot of his recent stuff, which took me a little by surprise; The Execution Channel and The Night Sessions had been so full of foreboding that I had been discouraged about getting into a MacLeod book set in a place as naturally gloomy as the Caucasus. 

It's something of an oddity for MacLeod in a lot of ways, because it's the first time he's written a book which is set here and now, rather than somewhere in the future (his books tend to jump between a grim vision of the near future and a more utopian distant future, jumping back and forth between one and the other to make the reader think about how one can turn into the other). Maybe that's why it feels comparatively chirpy; things are bad in the book, but they're no worse than they are right now in the real world, and I've learned how to deal with that. 

The Caucasus is one of those awkward places which we just don't get in the west; just another messy conflict zone with problems we don't understand and don't seem to care much about. MacLeod creates a completely plausible extra statelet to chuck into the mess, and tangles the history of Krassnia up with the family history of his protagonist. There was a moment about halfway through the book when I realised that I didn't even know as much as I thought I knew about Soviet history; there's a throwaway reference to Laurenti Beria's brief period of near power in the aftermath of Stalin's death. Beria outlasted Stalin? I thought. I went off to look it up, and to my surprise, Beria outlasted the old bastard by about six months, and might have been his successor if he hadn't been such an appalling human being that his enemies were, despite his best efforts, still numerous enough to do him in and pass the torch to Khrushchev. 

I don't usually check the homework in a novel, but there are hints from the beginning that the narrative might be taking place in a reality a little adrift from our own, and I wanted to see if this was the big clue that we were working in a parallel dimension. Nope; give or take the fact that Krassnia doesn't exist, everything about the Soviet experiment in the Caucasus is pretty much in line with the historical record, which is a grim and bloody one. The world of The Restoration Game is our own world, give or take the Grand Fenwick which MacLeod has magicked in to carry the plot along. I was probably more depressed by my own ignorance of the world than I was by what happened in it, since I've had a lot of time to get my head round the melancholy reality of what happened when communism got road tested in Russia.

Lucy Stone is a feisty protagonist and narrator, who feels more like a girl than the women in SF usually do, though I suspect any actual women will correct me on this one. What does feel incontestably right is the way that the moral edges of everything in the family history fuzz and blur; in The Restoration Game everyone thinks they're doing their best while being uncomfortably aware that it's not quite working out in line with their best intentions. MacLeod may not have given a perfect female character, but he's done a good job of catching the muddle and compromise of real people in tough places. For a lot of the book, I was all set to work this note around the notion that MacLeod had accidentally written a Tim Powers book; almost all of Powers' work has been openly or implicitly a secret history of the world, showing us mystical interference in documented history. 

The Restoration Game isn't that, in the end. It's more of an effort to cook up a book around the most recent version of the Platonic cave discussion. The Matrix threw into the mainstream the question of whether we're living in the real world or just a simulation of one, and in the background some more serious scientists have been mulling it over as a practical question. It turns out that you can pose this as a version of the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation (the first asks why we've never heard from aliens, and the second estimates just how many aliens we should have been hearing from). If you assume Artificial Intelligence is inevitable, and then make a bunch of slightly less iffy assumptions, you can rapidly paint yourself into a corner where it's far more likely than not that we're all just facets of a simulation being run by some vast AI for inscrutable purposes of its own. (It's left as an exercise for the reader to ponder how different that is from believing that we're living a world made by a supreme being…) The Restoration Game is an extended riff on what that might mean in practice, and perhaps the most self-aware moment in the whole thing is in a conversation early one among the real world game developers Lucy works for, when they complain about how they've got an idea, but not a story.

The Restoration Game actually has a halfway decent story, but it's deliberately ambiguous in the way it deals with the idea; MacLeod puts the book's reality squarely into play as a possible simulation in the opening pages, but the way he does it - and the echoes in the text itself - leave you wondering at the end if the culture running the simulation are simulations themselves, just as unaware as the characters. Is it, as Hawking asked, turtles all the way down

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