Our past informs the present and shapes who we are, and memory is rarely random so much as triggered, but the question is by what? Having spent most of his weekend preparing an important presentation, overworked and underappreciated software monkey Ross Baker reminisces on the morning bus to work about his childhood playing Half Life before being informed by email that his project has been sidelined, so when a colleague asks him to spare some time to be a test subject for the latest round of calibrations on the experimental brain scanners the company is developing for use in hospitals, he has no excuse to say no.
From his award winning debut Quite Ugly One Morning, Christopher Brookmyre has spent the last two decades at the forefront of Scottish crime fiction yet always with a twist, usually in subversive humour and his anti-establishment stance, moving into elements of the supernatural (thoroughly debunked in the final chapters) in Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks and horror in Pandaemonium, but Bedlam is his first direct venture into science fiction, for after the scan Ross finds himself not in the lab but in a world he quickly recognises as the setting of another game from his childhood, the futuristic first person shooter Starfire.
Unravelling the rules of the his new environment, Ross tries to fathom how he has come to be there while gathering weapons and convenient medpacks to stay alive, following the rules of the game while trying to move past the preset narrative to achieve his own goal of finding a way home. He soon realises that he is not the only person to have been dropped in the gaming world and that when anyone can change their appearance to suit their character, trust is not easy. This learned, he disguises himself by adopting his long abandoned gaming name – Bedlam.
Others have done virtual reality before – Nick Sagan in Idlewild, Joe Haldeman in Old Twentieth, Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash and of course William Gibson – but setting it in a specifically gaming environment seems to be the province solely of Tron and Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn, but those environments were not drawn from the many real world games so gleefully described here, from Pacman and Jet Set Willy to Skyrim, Quake, Doom and Duke Nukem, but none match the hideous, tormented genius of the world created from a crossing of The Sims and the Daily Mail headline generator app.
It is to be expected there will be twists and betrayals and also many references, not only to games, but to a range of science fiction classics from Blake’s 7to the best of Gerry Anderson and beyond. Brookmyre is an acknowledged Whedon fan, and the novel contains some subtle and some direct references (trying to come to terms with the sudden frame shift of his reality, Ross ponders whether he has gone allBuffy S6E17) but the scanning process and the complex morality of the rights of digital individuals is most obviously reminiscent of Dollhouse.
Ross sometimes comes across as too impartial to his fate, analysing rather than feeling his situation, his detached observation of each turn and quirk in the game allowing him to build up a bigger picture based on those anomalies. Suppressing thoughts of his life and family for the most part, he veers towards becoming a dispassionate Sherlock rather than a displaced and distraught human, though by his own admission he has missed glaringly obvious matters in his personal life because he focused on his work. Contrasting this, supervisor Zac is a pure Brookmyre villain, odious, ruthless, scheming and judging everyone by his standards, always looking for the fast way to money and power; in short, he’s a Thatcherite.
Although much of the novel has a reliance on gaming structure, with information heavy opening chapters followed by scenes of running around and shooting, it offers adequate explanation for those who do not partake and sufficient humour for those who do to be entertained by the settings and the locals. The first person nature combined with a lot of non playing characters means that the trademark Brookmyre banter isn’t prevalent for much of the first third, the sarcastic asides confined to the occasional observation of virtual life within the game, but the final chapters where Bedlam and the digital resistance gather their forces for the end-of-level assault make up for this, leading to a resolution both dramatically and emotionally satisfying.
Bedlam is now available from Orbit books
Chris Brookmyre was interviewed by Geek Chocolate here