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Volume 29, Number 4, Summer 2011

The Restoration Game

By Ken Macleod

Pyr Books, 2011
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

The breakup of the Soviet Union, like the breakup of Rome, left behind a complex hinterland where people are enduring the proverbial “interesting times.” It’s hardly to be wondered at, that novelists, including some who write in English, are turning to the Russian periphery as a setting rich in conflict and intrigue. The Restoration Game represents Ken MacLeod’s exploration of this territory. At the same time, it’s a look backward to the Soviet Union, to what might be called the Matter of Russia (in the spirit in which the Matter of Britain refers to stories about the ethic of chivalry): an attempt to make sense of the catastrophe of Soviet communism through its imaginative transformation into fictional terms. The Matter of Russia is a natural subject for a writer whose ideas grew out of Trotskyism, which was always focused on the betrayal of the Russian Revolution.

MacLeod’s particular vehicle for this is his own addition to the roster of fictional geographies: The tiny autonomous republic of Krassnia, sandwiched in between Russia, Abkhazia, and Georgia as Sinclair Lewis’s Winnemac was between Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. Krassnia’s native language seems to be a peculiar variant of Russian, distinguished by being written in the Roman alphabet, as a result of its long-ago rule by the Vrai, a military/landholding elite descended from a Roman legion that somehow made its way to the Caucasus. “Vrai,” of course, is French for “true,” and the pun is probably deliberate. This history, in the course of the novel, becomes the basis for an online fantasy roleplaying game, with a storyline contributed by the central character, Lucy Stone.

Most of Lucy’s story, for all the setting’s imaginary geography, has no more overtly fantastic content than Sinclair Lewis’s novels. It reads partly like a historical novel about life in the Soviet Union under “actually existing socialism,” and partly like a spy thriller. Lucy herself turns out to be the product of a long family heritage of spying, in the course of which they became entangled in Krassnian affairs, resulting in Lucy’s being born there, and spending much of her childhood there. Much later, her gaming company is hired to do a version of their new fantasy game set in Krassnia, which results in Lucy going back there. All of this is tangled up with a plotline—worthy of a Victorian novel—centered around which of several different men is Lucy’s father.

Krassnia, of course, doesn’t exist. The Restoration Game edges up toward the realm of metafiction when Lucy herself, early on, says in so many words that Krassnia doesn’t exist, and can’t be found on any maps. The explanation for this turns out to take the reader into the genre of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” or perhaps of Heinlein’s “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”—but in a form that, if no less metaphysical, is at the same time science fictional, in a very hard-sf way. The novel’s climax confronts Lucy with a mysterious artifact hidden at the heart of Krassnia, which is the focus of the peculiar heresies of the Vrai, but which makes sense in quite different terms than theirs—terms that make the whole novel into science fiction. At the same time, this novel is a peculiar reversal of the themes of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. It ends by affirming that there are indeed cosmic anomalies that have not been discovered because of the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents—but that correlation is not to be feared but to be looked forward to.

This science fictional theme is tightly bound up with the novel’s political theme: the catastrophic failure of Marxism. MacLeod may have come up with one of the most ingenious explanations ever conceived for why the Russian Revolution turned out so badly. This is not a novel about the destructive effects of an imaginary collectivist society, but of a real one. MacLeod clearly knows the whole history intimately; for example, he gives a brilliant summary of Stalin’s successive attacks on Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev—in the words of the forced confession of one of Stalin’s victims. We don’t actually get much in the way of a vision of something better, but we get a very clear literary statement of how badly things went wrong.

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