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?

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  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.

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