(2010) Ken MacLeod, Orbit, £18.99, hrdbk, 303pp, ISBN 978-1-841-49647-4
When I finished The Restoration Game, I went back and reread the last chapter. Then I spent the afternoon thinking about it. That is not because it is a difficult read: on the contrary, as usual with Ken MacLeod, the narrative draws you in and the style makes reading a pleasure. The female protagonist, the jaunty tone and the red herring (as it turns out) of radioactive ore, all reminded me of The Light-Hearted Quest by Anne Bridges, a World Books selection in my parents’ collection which I enjoyed in my early teens. But there is more to it than that.
It satisfies two of my tests for absorption: at the beginning, in a play-within-a-play opening like The Taming of the Shrew, Ken sets the story in a frame within which it is going to end, and then begins his character's first-person narrative with what is going to begin the final scene. Long before the midpoint of the book, I had forgotten both signposts to how it would end – something done to me by few books except The Lord of the Rings. And, after I had read the first few chapters, that night I dreamed the beginning of a similar story with a similar character, set in Glasgow rather than Edinburgh, though I woke up just when she was about to have her Big Idea. Tolkien’s opening chapters gave me dreams, as well.
I did not read any of it on a train, so I cannot say whether it would pass the Bob Shaw test: three of his novels made me miss my destination, and on one journey he made me do it twice! Now, I am not working up to saying that The Restoration Game 'is' Bob Shaw meets The Lord of the Rings; that would be much too simplistic. But the viewpoint shift to the bigger frame at the end is a bit like the ones Bob Shaw pulled at the end of Other Days, Other Eyes, for example, and One Million Tomorrows.
The jacket blurb would have you believe that the Tolkienesque element is even more overt. His heroine is Lucy Stone, who works for a computer games company in Edinburgh, and her big idea is to solve the problems of a game set on Mars by turning it into a swords-and-sorcery fantasy set in her homeland and based on her mother's collection of local legends. Lucy hails from Krassnia, a small state caught between Georgia and Russia. It is small enough for authoritative histories of communism to dismiss it in footnotes, although the mining rights, to which Lucy’s family still nominally hold title, triggered big events during the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and now cast a spanner into the CIA's attempts to foment a pro-Western revolution. The blurb and the cover illustration would have you think that the new events are played out in ‘the virtual spaces of the online game’, but although that does happen, the book’s not about that. When Lucy returns to Krassnia and the failed revolution is crushed, the battles are between protesters and riot police, and at the border with tanks, without any parallels in the game’s fantasy world.
What the game and the conflict have in common is that Krassnia really does have a mountain, once thought to be enchanted and still guarded and off-limits, which houses a secret – so big that the cover story is a nuclear accident during Beria’s visit in search of radioactive ore. One of many deft touches is that before Lucy gets there various characters have already ruled out the 'standard' SF explanations: crashed UFO; portal to another dimension, etc.. There are lots of deft touches: Astronomy Picture of the Day, Mama Mia, 'a Stewart & Cohen from a bookstall'… After Norman Spinrad’s lengthy put-down of SF conventions in He Walked Among Us, it is nice to see Ken do it in a few words – but I am not going to spoil that for you, or tell you what the secret is, just that it is worth the journey to find out.
Other Ken MacLeod novels reviewed include: The Cassini Division, Cosmonaut Keep, Dark Light, Learning the World, The Sky Road, The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal.
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