Friday, January 27, 2012

The Restoration Game: Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod's The Restoration Game is yet another entry in this year's bounty of books dominated by MMORPGs and set in a near-future real world. I've read at least three and I think I have another three in progress or at the top of my stack. MacLeod's stands out for having some actual science fiction, which (though it has significant implications for the characters' interpretation of reality) doesn't actually effect the story much. Any other Macguffin would have served as well; it is only revealed at the end of the story, and other than searching for it, its exact nature didn't affect the characters' motivations.

The MMORPG in question is being developed by Lucy Stone during the course of events (which is also not unusual in this year's crop of books.) In this case, Lucy is working for a game design company building a more prosaic MMORPG, and they are contracted to build a special purpose variant that will be used to promulgate certain destabilizing ideas among the population of Krassnia, an ex-soviet bloc region that is ripe for a revolution. Lucy's mother was a spy, so Lucy is used to working undercover and making her way unnoticed in the real world. She also has a few friends who seem to be connected to shady and unscrupulous characters.

The action is exciting and the characters' need to travel around Europe and visit the ex-Soviet bloc give MacLeod plenty of opportunities to compare places and the kinds of activities going on there. Krassnia is a dingy place, but the young people there are vibrant and exploring new business ideas and ignoring their elders who have habits developed and honed behind the Iron Curtain. Lucy herself had some scary run-ins with high officials while she was growing up there. That and her mother's book on the history and folk tales of the country give her a leg up when she has to sneak in and look for the MacGuffin.

Restoration Game is, of course, nominated for the Prometheus Award. It's very well written, and has at least a modicum of science fiction (which gives it an edge over Stephenson's Reamde). The libertarian elements are subtle—There's a popular revolution going on in the background, and government agents are trying to stop Lucy's progress. Lucy isn't explicitly libertarian, but libertarians will like her; she's a strong, responsible individual, trying to make her own way. There isn't a prominent struggle with important libertarian themes, though those seem to be generally lacking in this year's nominees. It's definitely worth a read if you haven't overdone the MMORPG-influenced genre yet.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Vernor Vinge: The Children of the Sky

Vernor Vinge's The Children of the Sky is a sequel to his wonderful A Fire Upon the Deep. In this novel, we visit the home world of the Tines, a dog-like species who only achieve sentience when melded into packs of 3 to about 6. The main human characters are the children of a group of scientists who found a way to engender a widespread Slow Zone, where higher technology and FTL isn't possible, in order to slow the advance of the Blight, a malignant entity bent on a civilization-wide attack. The humans have been revived from cold sleep by various tine factions, and are trying to understand the galactic context that left them abandoned and possibly vulnerable in the Slow Zone. A few of them remember what life was like on a research station, and there is much recrimination and internecine battling among the maturing adolescents. At the same time, the Tines have their own politics and factions, some of whom are ruthless. They also only have second hand knowledge of the higher technology that was lost, and are jealous to be the first to invent useful tools and weapons.

Vinge is a master a depicting truly alien characters, and keeping them true to the characteristics he assigns them. The Tines are individually quite incapable, and don't function well when in close proximity to Tines other than their their own small pack. In this story, we also get to see that the Tropical Choir, which is a super-pack of millions of Tines, somehow manages to operate somewhat cohesively, to the surprise of the northern Tines. Individual packs of Tines have distinct personalities, and can plan and make and keep agreements. When they lose members, it's a lot like aphasic people, with distinct skills and knowledge getting lost. Some Tines and humans explore various approaches to sidestep these problems, but the alternatives have drawbacks that are often worse.

Children of the Sky is a nominee for this year's Prometheus award, and it may be the best written of this year's novels, but the libertarian elements are hard to spot. The Tines don't have an organized government, and no one seems to collect taxes. It's hard to say that they have a well-functioning spontaneous order, since there's little commerce to be seen, even though Tycoon is portrayed as a successful and innovative businessman. (Also, he/they seems to operate sweatshop-style factories, and imprisons and tortures rivals.)

Since the story takes place entirely on one backwoods planet in the slow zone in Vinge's enormous universe, the scope is necessarily narrow, so the implications for galactic civilization that we're used to in Vinge's stories in this universe are missing. The story is still one of adventure, intrigue, invention, progress and loyalty. The way that Tine packs can change attitude, knowledge, and alliance when they gain or lose members gives Vinge unusual opportunities for plot twists. It's definitely a fun read. Whether you like Vinge, or haven't yet seen how he can bring an alien civilization to life, you'll enjoy this.