RogerBW's Blog

Bedlam, Christopher Brookmyre 23 November 2014

Ross Baker is having a bad day. He'd just lain down for an experimental brain scan, and now he seems to be a cyborg soldier in an endless war. And it's going to get a lot stranger than that. If you plan to read this book, know that I thought it fairly good (I'd rate it with Pandæmonium as minor but worth reading, much better than When the Devil Drives) and stop reading now to avoid the spoilers.

I'm making that recommendation because much of the pleasure in this book comes from working out what's going on. Ross rapidly discovers that he seems to be stuck in the world of a computer game (a specific computer game, one that he knows quite well because he played it a lot when he was younger), but it's all rather more complicated than it seems: some of the other occupants of the world are programmed NPCs, but some are real people like him, and there seem to be more game worlds out there. And then there's the question of Bostrom's simulation hypothesis…

Mind you, I think the typical reader who's familiar with SF concepts will draw certain correct conclusions well before the characters do; it may just be that I'm accustomed to thinking about questions of existence, continuity and memory, but the big revelation at the two-thirds mark was something that I'd simply been assuming was the most obvious explanation for the available evidence. As with Pandæmonium, this feels at times like "starter SF" written for non-SF readers who aren't used to dealing with non-real-world ideas and so have to have them introduced slowly and with plenty of explanation and recaps. (Reading other reviews suggests this wasn't a success.) If you've read Ready Player One or Accelerando or even A Point of Honor you really won't find very much to surprise or confuse you here.

(Mind you, at least this is being done by someone who clearly knows and likes SF – rather than the related thing where a Serious Literary Author writes a book in which he's terribly proud of himself for coming up with ideas that real SF had discussed at length fifty years before.)

There are some other problems too. Ross is written as too much of an ignorant everyman to be plausible as the medic/coder/neuroscientist that he's meant to be. Nobody really has much in the way of character. We're supposed to be surprised by the revelation of the identity of Iris. There's a blatant info-dump near the end that doesn't really tell us anything we hadn't already worked out. The core of the villains' plan seems as though it would be immediately demolished by any half-competent lawyer, the actual law that they're trying to get round seems arbitrary and ill-thought-out (probably, alas, realistic), and nobody ever seems to think that if you are a copy of someone with all of that person's memories up to a certain point, there's no reason why it should automatically be the case that the original is considered the "real" one and you aren't.

I think the book's best enjoyed as a picaresque, a trip through a variety of video-game worlds and an examination of how people in those worlds could make them interesting places to live. Some are more interesting than others; a lengthy sequence dealing with the Daily Mail Headline Generator falls a bit flat, but the world reimagined by its residents from a science-fictional carjacking and crime game into a pleasant place to live is rather more fun. There's always something new round the corner, and that's the main source of pleasure here, not the sometimes-tired main plot.

It's not up with Brookmyre's best work, but it's more satisfying than the Jasmine Sharp novels; the acerbic wit is back, though it's spread pretty thinly.

A caveat: while I've never been a terribly serious computer gamer I'm familiar with the genres and conventions, so while there's some explanation here I suspect the non-gamer (and non-SF-reader) might find himself a bit lost. There are plenty of in-jokes and references, and not all of them to computer games, though I suspect that the opportunity to find out at long last just how effective a Panzerfaust is against a troll may just be coincidence. What are the odds Brookmyre read The Strategic Review 1.5 from December 1975?

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog. ["As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases."]

  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 11:13am on 27 November 2014

    Enjoyed this (have never played any of the games he is referring to), but am still pining for the black humour of the Jack Parlabane novels. I think Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks is my favourite of Brookmyre's books.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:22am on 27 November 2014

    Yes, it's certainly not the classic Brookmyre. For me Ducks had a bit of a weak ending; I'm not sure about picking a single favourite, but One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Be My Enemy and Not the End of the World are all up there.

Comments on this post are now closed. If you have particular grounds for adding a late comment, comment on a more recent post quoting the URL of this one.

Tags 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s 3d printing action advent of code aeronautics aikakirja anecdote animation anime army astronomy audio audio tech aviation base commerce battletech beer boardgaming book of the week bookmonth chain of command children chris chronicle church of no redeeming virtues cold war comedy computing contemporary cornish smuggler cosmic encounter coup covid-19 crime crystal cthulhu eternal cycling dead of winter doctor who documentary drama driving drone ecchi economics en garde espionage essen 2015 essen 2016 essen 2017 essen 2018 essen 2019 essen 2022 essen 2023 existential risk falklands war fandom fanfic fantasy feminism film firefly first world war flash point flight simulation food garmin drive gazebo genesys geocaching geodata gin gkp gurps gurps 101 gus harpoon historical history horror hugo 2014 hugo 2015 hugo 2016 hugo 2017 hugo 2018 hugo 2019 hugo 2020 hugo 2021 hugo 2022 hugo 2023 hugo 2024 hugo-nebula reread in brief avoid instrumented life javascript julian simpson julie enfield kickstarter kotlin learn to play leaving earth linux liquor lovecraftiana lua mecha men with beards mpd museum music mystery naval noir non-fiction one for the brow opera parody paul temple perl perl weekly challenge photography podcast politics postscript powers prediction privacy project woolsack pyracantha python quantum rail raku ranting raspberry pi reading reading boardgames social real life restaurant reviews romance rpg a day rpgs ruby rust scala science fiction scythe second world war security shipwreck simutrans smartphone south atlantic war squaddies stationery steampunk stuarts suburbia superheroes suspense television the resistance the weekly challenge thirsty meeples thriller tin soldier torg toys trailers travel type 26 type 31 type 45 vietnam war war wargaming weather wives and sweethearts writing about writing x-wing young adult
Special All book reviews, All film reviews
Produced by aikakirja v0.1