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The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod

This is a review I need to construct with some care to avoid overly annoying readers. Let’s start with the headline which is that The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (PYR, 2011) is a terrific read. The prose positively crackles with invention and quite considerable wit for what may properly be classified as a kind of political thriller in a science fiction frame. It’s relatively unusual to read through a revenant of Russian espionage thrillers with a smile hovering on the outskirts of my face, waiting to come in from the cold when summoned by some unexpected delight. That said, the actual content is a reworking of some “old” ideas.

We need to go back to books like Time Out of Joint (Lippincott, 1959) by Philip K. Dick, Counterfeit World (Gollancz, 1964) (also published under the name Simulacron-3 and later filmed as The Thirteenth Floor) by Daniel F Galouye, Surface Detail (Orbit, 2010) by Iain M Banks, and so on, in which people are living in a virtual reality. We then take a small detour into the Dragon’s Egg (Ballantine, 1980) and its sequel Starquake (Ballantine, 1989) by Robert L Forward which are wonderfully accessible hard science fiction novels in which we first meet the Cheela and then help them rebuild their civilisation. The point of the duology is that, by virtue of the difference in time between the human outside observers and the Cheela on the neutron star, a Cheela day is 0.2 seconds in our time dimension. This allows us to watch the rise of a civilisation and, with dubious morality, influence its development. Finally, we need to come to books like Deep State (Orbit, 2011) by Walter Jon Williams in which online multiplayer role-playing games are used as a mechanism for planning and executing espionage activity.

Like the painting of the bridge, Ken MacLeod is a work in progress

At this point, some of you are likely upset because, without the courtesy of a spoiler warning, I’m apparently telling you what the book is about. Well, you’re both right and wrong. The book’s title tells you we’re dealing with a game. The Prologue starts with a quote from Wikipedia defining an “exploit” and is titled, “First-person shooter: Mars 2248 A.U.C.” Reading that chapter will confirm the exact set-up of the history experiment being run by rogue AIs and the unintentional flaw in the design of the simulation. It’s one of these silly mistakes any advanced artificial intelligence system might make (or not, depending on how stupid you want the machine to be). Except, of course, the inhabitants of the simulation will believe the scientific measurements they make. It will take them “centuries” to understand that there’s a certain lack of consistency in the physics. And, even if they do get confused, why should it matter? They are only simulations, after all!

Ah, so this brings us to the nub of the problem as presented by Ken MacLeod. By personalising the sims and spending most of the book describing their lives, he’s reinforcing the notion that they are people in the same way that we are people. When we go back to the Prologue, we should also notice that Daphne Pontifex herself seems interested in the collection of points. This gives us the implication that her world is simply another level in a gaming simulation where the players have been tasked with solving the problem of errors in an AI-generated simulation. Think of the structure of this book as a matryoshka doll with simulations of reality packed inside each other in descending sizes. Each simulation, from its own point of view, would consider itself real unless something fairly dramatic happened to disturb that consensus view, e.g. if scientific experiments were consistently to prove neutrinos may travel faster than the speed of light.

Back to dealing with your potential complaints. Everything discussed here is drawn from the first two chapters. The author is not interested in hiding the nature of the worlds in play here. He wants us to think about what responsibility, if any, we might have for any of the simulated realities our technology might create, whether now or in the future. At present, we might “inhabit” these worlds through avatars, but what would happen if there was enough computing power to make each character partially or wholly self-aware? Would it be murder to turn off the power without saving them all to hard memory? Finally, the fact the book is recycling “old” ideas does not make it any less interesting or enjoyable. If you compare romantic novels, a male and female meet at a social level. In due course, they explore the possibility of a relationship. There are problems. In the final chapter, they do/do not have sex depending on whether the book is propagandising abstinence before marriage.

The real enjoyment in this book comes from following the life histories of the generations through Eugenie, Amanda and Lucy. Somehow, the entire family seems tied into an obscure place called Krassnia, formally a part of the USSR. In all the telling, Lucy is a wonderfully unreliable narrator, in due course ably assisted by Ross Stewart. Then there’s the question of her paternity and why a version of the South Ossetia War might be fought. All in all, The Restoration Game is great fun told by Ken MacLeod with a knowing wink and a sly look in our direction.

The cover illustration is by the consistently excellent Stephan Martiniere.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For the record, The Restoration Game is a finalist for The Prometheus Award for Best Novel 2012.

For a review of another book by Ken Macleod, see The Night Sessions.

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