This book was sold to me as a techno-econ thriller about the nature of virtual reality, and I think that’s a pretty accurate summation. It sounds like a fascinating concoction of things relevant to my interests – which, again, it is. The only problem is that the end product is less than the sum of its parts.
The story unfolds through the first-person narration of Lucy Stone, a twentysomething programmer who works for a small video games startup. We learn about her family’s entanglement with the fictional former Soviet republic of Krassnia, which goes back at least four generations. Lucy’s family members – the ones who appear onscreen – consist of her mother (an academic who leads a double life as a CIA asset) and her great-grandmother (who was born into the peerage). Right off the bat we have two strong women. It occurs to me that the entire book can be read as an account of Lucy’s hunt for her biological father – who turns out, of course, not to be any of the candidates she parades before us. I am not advocating it should be read that way; only that it could be. At one point Lucy comments wryly that she feels like she’s in a production of Mamma Mia.
Lucy makes a lot of on-point observations. She likes a lot of the same stuff I do: Guy Gavriel Kay and Heroes and catching up on her LiveJournal feed; and even though these are things I would more likely be doing five or six years ago than now, I understand Lucy. I understand the kinds of books and TV and movies she grew up on. The biggest difference between me and Lucy is that I don’t know the first thing about code. Lucy’s is an administrative position but she explains that in her office everybody codes; and despite being the only woman as well as by far the worst coder, Lucy’s camraderie with her co-workers is never shown to be strained. She banters with the lads at work and goes out for a pint after. And that seems … too easy to me. Look, narratives don’t exist in a vacuum. Even an ignorant layperson like me who knows nothing about gaming knows this: Video games are the site of some of the worst, most vituperative rank misogyny in existence. To the point that when somebody tries to systematically examine how bad the representation of women is in video games, she’s subjected to a prolonged online harassment campaign. Because the video game community would rather jump down her throat for airing their dirty laundry than admit that they have a problem. Given that gamers, like comic book fans and the larger SF fandom, have a track record of complaining about fake geek girls, I find it inconceivable that Lucy (the WORST coder in the house) is wholly accepted as “one of the guys,” that there is no questioning of her competency, no microaggressions in the workplace. Don’t get me wrong – it’s great that Lucy’s competent, just like her mom and her great-grandma. Yet when such competence is presented as natural and effortless it erases the struggle of real women under patriarchy who have to scrabble for every scrap of grudging recognition and respect they get. It makes Lucy “Not Like the Other Girls,” which says as much about the other girls as it does about Lucy.
But the real reason this book didn’t work for me is not because it botched the women-in-geekdom angle. It’s because it wants to be a supernatural Cold War spy novel. Which is a fine objective. As it happens however I already have an excellent supernatural Cold War spy novel and it’s Declare by Tim Powers, and I’ve taken it out of the library four times in the past year (I don’t own a copy because every time I check my Amazon shopping cart the price seems to rise). Compared to the breadth of Powers’ imagination and the intricacy of his plotting, The Restoration Game appears amateurish. It was a quick read partly because none of the settings or characters (including Lucy) left an impression on me. And if I can’t even bring myself to care about Lucy, with whom I have so much in common and who has the additional advantage of being the one whose thoughts we are privy to, then there’s not much to be said for the rest of it.