I had, frankly, been afraid of trying to read Ken MacLeod, because I wasn’t sure I had the prerequisite domain knowledge. I studied Russian and majored in Political Science at UC Berkeley,[^fn0] and wasn’t sure that this had given me enough expertise on the history of Communism to jump into his work. Now that I’ve overcome this fear, I should check whether there’s a market for a MOOC, “Remedial Ken MacLeod Prerequisites,” in which I discuss leftism in the twentieth century, MacLeod’s crony and former Big Pharma dispenser Charles Stross, and the landscape of rural Scotland, or, “Reds, meds, and sheds.”
Then again, perhaps that’s unnecessary; even if you think a Mexican icepick is a margarita with extra salt, you can still enjoy The Restoration Game (novel, 2010) and, to a lesser extent, The Human Front (novella, 2001). Spoilers commence here!
Games, simulation, and alternate history
I first heard about The Restoration Game via Holly Gramazio’s talk, “Deadly Serious Games: fictional games and what they tell us”. Gramazio mentioned The Restoration Game and Walter Jon Williams’s Deep State as “not one but two novels in which a game designer is commissioned to create a game in order to destabilise a repressive government and foment a revolution.” I also saw a fully dressed woman engaged in knowledge work on the cover, which always makes me much more likely to read a work of speculative fiction.
MacLeod described Lucy Stone’s adventure as “‘a chick-lit technothriller’, in that it’s told by a young woman who is in love and it’s centred on a tradecraft use of current technology imaginatively exaggerated,” and it is that. It also plays with Lois McMaster Bujold’s reading that much scifi is “fantasy of political agency”; sometimes Stone makes rules for others to follow, sometimes she breaks rules others have set, and sometimes she finds that she’s a not-even-pawn in hands incomprehensibly more powerful than her own.
I use “pawn” advisedly. Games, thought-experiment scifi, jokes, puzzles, mysteries, and innovative business ideas all have similar characteristics: the creator chooses, tweaks and uses initial constraints so as to cause interesting, surprising emergent outcomes that feel inevitable in retrospect.[^fn1] They’re hacks, in the old-school sense of the word. One Crowning Moment of Awesome in The Human Front is a weaponize-your-obstacle hack, and MacLeod’s wording emphasizes that reading:
“There’ll be no air support in this muck,” said Sandy. “All the same,” I said, “our best bet is to pull out now, we have the chance and there’s nothing more to– wait a minute. What about the tanks?”
“Can’t do much damage to them,” said Mike. “Aye,” I said, “but think of the damage we can do with them.”
The Human Front features three major levels of game-playing: the Party infighting, the great powers’ war, and the fake “Venusian” prison. The Restoration Game also has three major levels of game: “Dark Britannia” and its Krassnian variant, the political maneuvering surrounding control of Krassnia and the secret of the mountain, and the game/simulation framing device. In each case, we see causality is reasonably simple, if-this-then-that. (Both The Restoration Game and The Human Front, not coincidentally, give the protagonists several escalating invitations to join secret clubs that share secrets and have superior theories of change, e.g., “how would you like to join the real escape committee?”)
And of course both of these stories are also alternate histories, and the genre expectation of alt histories is that the reader will be able to follow the thought experiment as systematically as a financier can follow cascading formulae in spreadsheet cells. Even more than in sci-fi overall, when reading alt histories, reader strongly assume there is one Jonbar Point and that causality follows from that. We see some pushback, sure. Zhang Zhong Shan’s final speech in Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang (partial quote) reminds us that Marx thought along Newtonian lines, without the benefit of chaos theory. And Kim Stanley Robinson’s “A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions,” a companion essay to his “The Lucky Strike”, goes even further in linking the alternate history genre to a fairly unsupportable, or at least deeply questionable, dependence on simplistic historical explanations. But overall, when I look around in fandom, I see scifi readers getting tetchy if they don’t get enough clues that they can lay out a reassuringly Newtonian set of causes and effects leading from the point of divergence to the text as given (as Jo Walton has seen in reader questions about My Real Children). Thus: One reason to brush up on our universe’s history of leftist organizing, infighting, and outfighting is so that you can see those clues and nuances in The Human Front; if you are fine with knowing that some of the unfamiliar nouns in the text ought to be familiar to you, then you don’t need my hypothetical MOOC.
In general — betraying my predilection for fantasies of political agency — I think fiction about game designers and the makes of simulations is more interesting than fiction about people playing a game or otherwise trapped within a simulation (see case #4 in Gramazio’s analysis, which basically also applies to The Truman Show and The Matrix). So, if any of you can point to fanfic about the time-travelling restoration workers from The Human Front or the virtual machine sysadmins from The Restoration Game, please leave links in the comments!
Difference and insignificance
My PM Press copy of The Human Front includes MacLeod’s essay on specifically writing a Scottish future, “The Future Will Happen Here, Too”. I particularly welcome this effort, as a reader looking for diversity in my science fiction. I want to explore places and meet people I don’t often see in fiction, and that includes Scottish people, Scottish places, and Communists. I appreciate Zen Cho and Lauren Beukes for their particular perspectives, and I appreciate MacLeod for writing his specific white ethnic identity.
I did have one jarring moment, speaking as an Indian-American, reading “Other Deviations: The Human Front Exposed” (also in the PM Press edition):
What if something that didn’t happen had happened differently? I had in mind a particular event in 1947 that never happened, and that has become the foundation of a genuine modern myth. (You know what it was.)
I spent at least ten seconds trying to figure out why MacLeod was saying that India and Pakistan had not gained their independence in 1947. Then I read the next paragraph and remembered that duh, Roswell. Years of X-Files fandom plus having just read a counterfactual story about the Roswell saucer evidently did not overcome my reflexive Indian-American association with the year 1947. I’ll have to tell my mom about this the next time I think she worries that I’ve lost touch with my heritage.
Speaking of fandom, both books’ protagonists display genre savviness, e.g., the Conan Doyle and Wells references by Matheson in The Human Front, and the pub conversation in The Restoration Game where Stone meets her colleagues for the first time. And they both get an amazing sensawunda payoff, namely, the experience of finding out that the world is not what they thought it was, and that they are even further from being the center of the universe than they might have supposed.
Rest in peace, Reginald Zelnik.
If I may plug one or two things: My own spouse, Leonard Richardson, explores these themes in his short story “Mallory” and his novel Constellation Games, both of which discuss video games, startups, artificial intelligence, the numinous, and getting in over your head.