RogerBW's Blog

Places in the Darkness, Chris Brookmyre 18 February 2018

2017 science fiction. Ciudad de Cielo, the space habitat where the first generation ship is being constructed, has just had its first murder. Two unlikely investigators will need to work together to solve it, and the bigger plots behind it.

I approached this with some trepidation, since I haven't been impressed with much of Brookmyre's recent writing but wanted to give him another go. As with Brookmyre's earlier Bedlam and Pandæmonium, this is SF that's trying not to worry non-SF readers who've seen the author's name and wandered in by accident; everything's always clearly laid out so that the mundanes can keep up.

It's odd, because I've always felt that Brookmyre isn't really comfortable in SF-land; most of the story could have worked as well set on Earth, and would have allowed him to avoid the embarrassment of putting a geosynchronous station (at the top of a space elevator) "one hundred and sixty thousand kilometres above the base". Yeah, this is meant to be happening in Earth orbit. (And if it was to be named after an SF author, why is it Heinlein Station rather than Clarke or Sheffield? Beanstalks were never a major theme of Heinlein's work. Sure, you the author may like Heinlein, but what's the diegetic reason?) And people's eye-camera video recordings are "private, protected by unbreakable DNA-based encryption unless you choose to unlock them" but apparently you can't use their DNA when they're dead… some of this is set up to do what the plot needs, but I think Brookmyre should have talked to some more experienced space and crypto people, which would have let him avoid such mistakes.

The setting clearly isn't where his enthusiasm lies; that's in questions of consciousness and memory, and their manipulation, and I'm not giving away anything here because all that's foreshadowed by an extensive infodump a few chapters in. It's so heavily foreshadowed, in fact, that efforts to make the reader think that this is going to be a story about the corporations versus the government versus organised crime rather fail to gain any traction, and there's a bit of a slump around the midpoint of the book when Brookmyre is still showing us the flashy distractions and we want to get on with drawing the curtain on what's really going on. (As in Bedlam, the big revelation at the two-thirds mark will not come as any kind of surprise to the habitual SF reader.)

That said, this time it's good flashy distraction. There are serious questions asked about tolerance of illegality, corporate complicity in same, and just how "rowdy" space workers should be expected to get. Indeed, the final act seemed at times to back off from the really challenging SF ideas in favour of having clearly-labelled good guys and bad guys.

There are still holes. There's a lot of talk about the usefulness of those eyecam recordings, but then one investigator is assigned "an observer whose word won't carry any weight in a he-said, she-said" and this is a cunning political manoeuvre. Well, no, it doesn't have to carry any weight, because of the recordings. But mostly the book works. I thought that both the (female) protagonists were a bit too ready to go gooey over the idea of Babies, but one of them has an excuse and it's never a huge plot point.

It's slow at times but not hard to read, and overall I think it's a substantial improvement on Bedlam. It's still heavy-handed, but Brookmyre's SF voice seems finally to be improving just as his contemporary one has, for me at least, fallen apart.

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