Ken MacLeod's latest near-future thriller The Restoration Game takes us deep inside a CIA plot to overthrow the government of Krassnia, an imaginary former Soviet republic — using an MMO designed to stir up nationalist sentiment among Krassnia's youth. Out this month in the U.S. from PYR Books, the novel traces a set of strange connections uniting a small Scottish videogame startup, two ethnographers who met in Soviet-era Krassnia, benevolent human smugglers, and a multinational conspiracy straight out of The X-Files. If you are fascinated by the political history of the Soviet Union and its aftermath, The Restoration Game will light your brain on fire. But you don't need to be a history buff; this is a novel for anybody who likes a damn good spy story with wisps of the singularity lurking at its edges.
MacLeod is best known for his politically-savvy science fiction like the Fall Revolution series, often set in and around his native Scotland. But lately he's also written some spot-on near-future novels, notably The Execution Channel and The Night Sessions (so far only out in the UK), which both deal with the intersection of war, new media, and the blurring lines between human and artificial intelligence. Like these other novels, The Restoration Game manages to keep a lot of balls in the air.
At the center of the novel is Lucy, a young twenty-something who lucks into a job working as an admin at an Edinburgh videogame company because she's bonded with the owners over a shared love of science fiction. Though Lucy herself remains something of a cipher — she's basically a geeky version of Bridget Jones — it's really her past that we're interested in. Her mother, a professor of Eastern European folklore, has worked closely with the CIA all her life — and has had affairs with so many interesting men that Lucy isn't sure until the novel's end whether her father is a leftist-turned-smuggler or a former Soviet politico; her mother's parentage is just as tangled and shadowy. Much of the book involves untangling the bizarre history of revolutions and counterrevolutions, with their attendant espionage-fueled liasons, in the Caucasus region around Krassnia where Lucy spent the first years of her life.
As the novel opens, Lucy is drawn into this history when her mother abruptly asks if the game company where she works will design a special one-off game for "a company." This game has to be very special; it will use the basic fantasy game that Lucy's colleagues have been developing, but will feature characters, places, and details from Krassnian history. Given that Lucy actually speaks and reads Krassnian, she has to step out of her admin role and write the game. Her colleagues are thrilled to have a client, and only Lucy knows "the company" is actually the CIA, and the game is intended to create a covert, nationalist-oriented meeting space for Krassnians organizing a CIA-backed "color revolution" nicknamed the Maple Revolution.
Of course, it turns out that Lucy is going to wind up doing a lot more than writing the game. Because there's something even more incredible than an Eastern European uprising that the CIA wants to find in Krassnia — there's a mystery in the region's local mountain, which has on occasion glowed vividly for no reason that science (or the Soviets) could explain. The CIA needs a spy to check out the mountain's mysterious caves before the revolution crumbles beneath the treads of Soviet tanks. Unfortunately, all the competent spies in the region are already known to local officials. Only Lucy, a fresh face with knowledge of the local language and region, can do the mission. So we've got a kind of semi-fantasy, semi-science fiction quest wrapped up in post-Soviet micropolitics.
There is a twist ending, as you'd expect in a thriller, and it works nicely — though it's so awesome that it will leave you wishing that MacLeod had given us the twist about halfway through. The one flaw in The Restoration Game is that MacLeod gets so enchanted with his worldbuilding that he forgets to bring on the action. Early in the novel, we overhear Lucy's videogame developer colleagues in a bar, complaining that they've developed an amazing alternate history scenario for their game but have no good story to pull it together. This is, in a nutshell, the problem with The Restoration Game. Luckily, Lucy helps her buddies create a story for their videogame, but she doesn't ever manage to do that with the novel. At many points, the book simply falls off balance with the weight of a backstory that includes everything from Soviet intellectual dissident history to irritating, overlong diary entries from men who slept with Lucy's mother a few times. And Lucy's stereotypical "ditzy but brave" girl-woman character isn't enough to tilt the balance back.
Still, these problems aren't bad ones to have when MacLeod is at the wheel. He has keen eye for politics, especially among revolutionaries and activists, and a sardonic sense of humor that nicely compliments the worldly (and otherworldly) melodrama. Even when MacLeod infodumps, you won't be able to put this book down. The Restoration Game is a perfect blend of near-future and alternate-history spy tale — the fact that the alternate history is so close to our own makes it even more delicious to ponder.
The Restoration Game is now out in the U.S. at your favorite local bookstore, and has been out in the U.K. for the past year.