Book reviews: New Model Army | Kraken | The Resoration Game

Three novels from literature's margins address the types of weighty issues the mainstream eschews, finds Stuart Kelly


Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 12.99


China Miville

Macmillan, 17.99


Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 18.99

IF I were to say that these three novels dealt, respectively, with how technology is changing the nature of self and democracy; the politics of belief in the postmodern city; and the ramifications of Bostrom's simulation hypothesis for ethics and the philosophy of being, then you'd be forgiven for thinking this newspaper had turned into Critical Quarterly.

Likewise, if I said these three novels were about a "giant" waging war on Basingstoke; the miraculous disappearance of a giant squid; and a computer game about a real but non-existent Soviet state – and the dark goings-on therein – then you'd be equally at liberty to think this was SFX.

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This is one of the great ironies of contemporary literature: the books that ask the deepest and most profound questions tend to be situated in the most marginalised of genres. Even writers in the field are tired by the labels and the schisms around them – is this fantasy or sci-fi, steam-punk or alt-history? – and if it weren't for the shelving policy of bookstores, we might as well just call them all literature.

The "giant" in Adam Roberts's New Model Army is called Pantegral, and it's not a single entity. In the near future, new armies have developed through a combination of flash-mobbing, crowd-sourcing and wireless connections. Volunteers – genuine volunteers, not conscripts – come together to achieve objectives, then melt back into "civilian" life as they choose.

This radical, freelance and truly democratic army has been hired by the Scottish Government as part of the Succession War: cheekily, Roberts posits a crisis in devolution when Prince William dies, and the Scots and Welsh demand Prince Harry has a paternity test before assuming the role of Prince of Wales. The protagonist tells us in the opening line that he is "not the hero of this story" as, under interrogation, he describes how the New Model Armies work.

The brilliantly detailed concept is balanced by terrific action scenes in the "suburban catastrophe" style of HG Wells or JG Ballard. Every bus stop becomes a fox-hole; each multi-storey car-park a bunker. And Roberts suggests, eerily, that the New Model Army might just be an interim stage as humanity comes to term with its new collective capacity.

China Miville's Kraken is more frolicsome than his previous, multiple award-winning novel The City & The City. The surreal disappearance of a giant squid from the Natural History Museum in London plunges curator Billy into the twisted, frenetic, baroque underworld of London magic; full of Chaos Nazis, Gun Farmers, Flood Brothers, supernatural unions and a squid worship cult.

With the ends, plural, of the world looming, Billy struggles to cleave to reason against a plethora of supernatural religions. Nobody working in fantasy at the moment has Miville's range: Kraken winks at both Thomas Pynchon and Judge Dredd, Star Trek and Iain Sinclair. It's also the clearest example yet of Miville's Lynch-like fascination with confusing surfaces and cores (one of the villains is a sentient tattoo).

Without spoiling the plot, maybe it's not a squid, but a squid in a jar that's crucial and maybe the holy war isn't internecine at all.

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Stornoway-born Ken MacLeod's The Restoration Game, like his previous novels The Execution Channel and The Night Sessions, are works of science fiction so worryingly close to reality that he may well be hailed as a prophet on Lewis. Indeed, the political manoeuvres in his new novel may be about the paradoxical state of Krassnia, but Ossetia, Chechnya and the Uzbek-Kyrgyz conflict glimmer darkly behind this fiction.

Programmer Lucy Stone's family has had a generations long relationship with Krassnia, so when her mother – whom she suspects has links to the CIA – asks her to create a "World of Warcraft" style game, using Krassnian myth, landscape and even language, she realises something more valuable than oil, gas or Krassnian plastic bag manufacturing is at stake. As her journey takes her from the virtual Krassnia to the real one, she learns, among other things, about her questionable paternity and a secret filming of something in the Krassnian mountains, something so shattering that it made Stalin blanch.

Sometimes, a significant absence can be more telling than an outright declaration. In MacLeod's case, this missing piece might well be that stereotype of Slavic culture, the matryoshka doll. Despite smugglers and witty satires on the ailing tourism economy of former Soviet autonomous regions, these nested figurines are never mentioned.

But the idea of shells within shells and spheres within spheres suffuses the novel; as versions of the virtual, the imagined and the real collide and bleed into each other. British diplomats used to refer to the "Great Game" of politics in the 'Stans; and MacLeod creates a world where the queens turn out to be pawns, and the rules might not even be those of chess.

All three of these novels wear their interest in revolutionary politics on their sleeves, which raises another intriguing irony. Maybe the only genre that can engage seriously with radical questions about reality is the most unreal and entertaining. The geeks, truly, will inherit the earth.

Adam Roberts and Ken MacLeod will appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 22 August

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 20 June.

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