In his twenty published novels, Chris Brookmyre has always pushed against the boundaries of the crime thriller genre he works within, with investigative journalist Jack Parlabane investigating the afterlife in Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, unleashing a horde or transdimensional demons on a Glasgow school trip in Pandaemonium or exploring the virtual reality of Bedlam, but in Places in the Darkness he goes even further, to the space station Ciudad de Cielo.
Aware his core followers may be out of their depth even in low geostationary orbit, like an early Arthur C Clarke novel as Brookmyre takes the reader up the ladder to the black it is seen through the eyes of a character who herself has never done it before, Alice Blake, recently appointed by the Federation of National Government as their representative on the outpost into which they have invested so much.
Unwelcome even before she has her floating feet under her desk, any smooth handover from her predecessor is derailed when the unspeakable happens, the first murder in the eighty years the station has been operational, a political disaster waiting to happen if word gets out before they can investigate and apprehend the killer. To that end, Alice requests the company of the infamous Sergeant Nicola Freeman, better known as Nikki Fixx.
Alice and Nikki are each joyless in different ways, Alice bound to her duty, cutting herself off from socialisation, analysing and mentally recording every regulatory infraction and personal slight; while her impatience with a pair of badly behaved children is quite understandable it soon becomes apparent that this is her default setting.
Nikki is different, a walking train-wreck incapable of moderation, taking everything to extremes, drinking, whoring, overworking, keeping everyone at a distance with her open hostility and finding no happiness in any of it, yet she understands the station far more than the new senior who is several years her junior whom she dismisses as “morally binary,” a relationship of grinding gears and frustrated friction driven by their incompatible backgrounds and approaches.
A much more complicated environment than is customary for Brookmyre it requires considerably more setting up than a Glasgow gangster revenge thriller, and accordingly the expected banter takes a back seat until the reader are comfortable with their space legs, though the prolific profanity and creative vulgarity associated with the likes of Jack Parlabane’s investigations is severely toned toned down; could it be the science fiction community is regarded as being more sensitive to such things?
Ciudad de Cielo is an experiment in more ways than one; as well as the ever-expanding orbiting station itself, new technology built upon a much older framework, a great many of the inhabitants have been implanted with “the mesh,” allowing direct uploading of information to the brain, though with clear delineation between received and experienced knowledge.
A process which naturally invokes memories of Joss Whedon‘s Dollhouse although the technology is more similar to the BrainCap of Clarke’s 3001: The Final Odyssey, endemic among the homogenised population of Earth in that august year, as in that novel the distinction between the once distinct races and their languages has eroded over time, but as the narrative develops it becomes apparent that the deeper influence is the justified paranoia of Philip K Dick.
Fortunately, while this may be his first “hard” science fiction novel, unlike many who think it is an easy commercial genre in which to write and subsequently underestimate and misunderstand the requirements of the undertaking, Brookmyre is already a confirmed fan, mentioning such diverse talents as Neal Stephenson and China Miéville on the recent launch event for the novel as well as the expected discussions of Dick, and even in the far future his plotting runs like intricate clockwork.
The future of humanity not so much a life among the stars as lying bleeding in the basement of an underground illegal fight club, Places in the Darkness is a Brookmyre novel from wheel to spinning wheel, and it is wise to make no assumptions and question every piece of information no matter how fundamental, as even on the steel decking of a space station sooner or later a rug will be pulled, Alice and Nikki finding that despite being little fish in what should be a firmly vacuum sealed pond someone is playing a much bigger game.
Places in the Darkness is available now from Orbit