Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
The simulation hypothesis is perhaps the ultimate conspiracy theory, the one conspiracy theory to rule them all. It’s common enough that more than one blockbuster film has been based on the premise. Like many philosophical concepts that encourage exploration through science fiction, the simulation hypothesis can be imagined in a plethora of ways. I admit I find it compelling, but only to a certain point, since there’s really no way to know….
The Restoration Game is ostensibly about Lucy Stone’s involvement in her mother’s plot to trigger a revolution in Krassnia, a former Soviet country so unremarkable that most people don’t know it exists. Lucy is was born in Krassnia, though her mother is American, and now she works at a game development studio. As she gets pulled deeper into the complex intrigue surrounding Krassnia, we learn more about her childhood, how her mother came to be involved in the spy life, and Lucy’s family’s long-held interests in the region.
Ken MacLeod surrounds all this with a frame story. Set on Mars in perhaps the eleventh or twelfth century, it reveals that Lucy Stone’s world (our world) is a simulation created by an amoral artificial intelligence. In the “real” world, Rome succumbed to slave uprisings and developed spaceflight in less than a millennium. We learn all of this in the prologue, so I wouldn’t really call it a spoiler, even if the back of the book doesn’t mention it. I’ve gone ahead and marked this review for spoilers anyway—plus, I want to talk about the ending and how it let me down.
I have to admit that all of this is pretty cool. MacLeod narrates the prologue in the second person, and the main character talks about “points” as a type of currency in a way that makes her world sound very gamified. I would have liked to learn more about this world, but we spend extremely little time in it. Instead we’re treated to chapter after chapter of exposition about Krassnia and Soviet history … and it’s kind of boring.
MacLeod gives away that we’re in a simulation in the first few pages of the book. Throughout the story, Lucy learns about “the Krassnian truth”, and it becomes apparent that her mother’s plot involves finding out this truth. We already know the truth has to be that their world is a simulation. Consequently, the climax of The Restoration Game lacks any sort of big reveal. Lucy learns the truth … but so what?
And that’s the real problem with this book. It would have been OK for MacLeod to give everything away in the prologue if he were going somewhere with it … but he doesn’t. There are no consequences to Lucy’s discovery! We learn that her world will likely discover its simulated nature in the near future but don’t get to actually see it happen—that would have been a cool story. Instead, Lucy gets a visit from someone from the real world, who asks her never to speak of this to anyone else … and that’s it.
It’s been a while since I read a book with such a cool premise that inspired such ennui. Moreover, the plot seems fairly contrived and slapdash. Consider the explanation for the wall of code moving down a rockface that Lucy discovers on Mount Krasny. This phenomenon is the ultimate proof we are in a simulated reality. Lucy’s visitor from the real world explains that it’s “placeholder code” designed to let them monitor the simulation, and they put it in an “obscure location”. Firstly, MacLeod’s explanation for why the code manifests like it does is rather limp. It’s a “patch”, which I suppose means it doesn’t quite fit into the physics of our world. But you think people who build artificial intelligences could do better than that.
I’m more concerned with the fact that Mount Krasny was considered “an obscure location”. You know what’s a fucking obscure location? Try the Challenger Deep, not some mountain in Eastern Europe! (Maybe that’s what’s behind the door James Cameron found.) Really, when you stick something that reveals reality is simulated at a location someone can reach without needing oxygen, you are doing it wrong.
But of course, if the code were at the bottom of the Challenger Deep and not on Mount Krasny, there would be no reason for Lucy to go to Krassnia. There would be no reason to subject us to interminable narration, dialogue, and epistolary chapters about Krassnia’s transitions from independence to Soviet control to independence again. Really, the simulated reality story is a minor detail compared to the bulk of The Restoration Game, which is an intense discussion of the politics of this fictional European country. At times I found it fascinating, but mostly I just kept waiting for Lucy to do something other than talk about what she is wearing.
I haven’t read anything else by MacLeod, but in this book his idea of writing from a woman’s perspective seems to involve describing clothes a lot. And, fair enough, maybe Lucy’s the type of girl who just loves describing her clothes. But this seems to be related more to MacLeod’s writing style than his portrayal of women characters: I often encountered sentences that felt like they were sinking beneath the weight of the information he wants them to convey. For example:
I tucked my lilac satin clutch bag under my left elbow, wedged the stem of my champagne flute between two spare fingers of the hand already holding a side plate of cucumber-and-tuna white bread triangels and tikka chicken wings, and with the lilac-polished fingernails of the other hand raked some flakes of sausage-roll pastry out of Alec’s beard.
You have got to be kidding me. Pick one or two things and tell me about them! Do I really need to know it was tikka chicken? Or that your fingernails match your clutch? Or that the pastry flakes were sausage-roll? Maybe MacLeod is trying to be efficient in packing his prose with as much information as possible, but the effect comes across as more annoying than anything—none of this information is essential. I try very hard not to nitpick about this sort of thing in my reviews, but it’s just so egregious here that I had to mention it. (Also, there just isn’t much else to talk about.)
The phrase “not a bad book” can mean so many things depending on the context. In this case, The Restoration Game is not a bad book, because it has a (fairly) coherent plot, an interesting main character, and tickles my fanciful ideas about simulated realities. Being a double negative, however, “not a bad book” is really just a more diplomatic way of saying it’s not all that good. I didn’t intend for this review to be so acerbic or negative, but I’m trying hard to think of more praise for this book and coming up short. There are things to like about this book, but overall it felt quite wanting.