Venturing into the Darkness with Chris Brookmyre

Released from the confines of The Caves where he normally appears for the Edinburgh launch of his novels, on the evening of 8th November Chris Brookmyre was in the more magnificent setting of the top floor of the Central Library as he was interviewed by astronomer and writer Pippa Goldschmidt about his twenty-first novel Places in the Darkness, his most recent, Black Widow having recently won the McIlvanney and Theakstons Prizes for best crime novel.

While two of his previous novels have had aspects of science fiction, Pandaemonium and Bedlam, set in the space station Ciudad de Cielo in Earth orbit where a generation colony ship is under construction Places in the Darkness is his first hard science fiction novel, Brookmyre preferring to think of Pandaemonium more as Gothic horror if for no other reason than, “well, it’s got goths in it.”

Explaining he had wanted to write a story “at the edge of existence” but also in a self-contained setting, Brookmyre said that the meshing of science fiction and crime was symbiotic and that the shift in locale and genre from “tartan noir” to “space noir” would not be triggering a middle initial, though he was aware of moving further from respectability. “As a crime writer I wasn’t being subjected to quite enough literary snobbery – if I move into science fiction I can nail that.”

Brookmyre admitted that more than science fiction an influence on Places in the Darkness had been the writer/director Shane Black of whom he has been a fan since Lethal Weapon, famous for his mismatched buddy movies but who has never featured two female leads, leading to Brookmyre to fill the gap. “When I say buddies, I mean two women who absolutely hate each other.”

His crime novels often written from the perspective of investigative journalist Jack Parlabane rather than a standard police procedural which he felt many other writers do well, the exotic setting allowed him to set his own rules and restrictions to suit the narrative; despite the warring gangs this is the first murder on Ciudad de Cielo, and while there have been weapons devised there are no guns as the danger to the integrity of the station would be too great.

The research having involved reading the memoirs of various astronauts, Brookmyre particularly recommended Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, an individual he described as “a total cowboy,” but he also mentioned the popular science of Michio Kaku, Physics of the Impossible and The Future of the Mind.

Driven by neuroscience more than space science, a key technology of the novel is the optogenetic mesh which allows new memories to be uploaded to the brain, a genuine development which has already been demonstrated to work on mice, training them to navigate mazes they have never been in before, the implication in crime fiction being the possibility of editing memories and altering personalities.

Deliberately trying to avoid drawing on the classic science fiction stories, Brookmyre was aware parallels with Philip K Dick’s constant questioning of whether people were defined by their memories was unavoidable, and more important was the 1987 film The Big Easy with Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin and John Goodman, the story of “a corrupt cop who has lost sight of just how corrupt he has become.”

Another influence was Joss Whedon’s Firefly in that there are no aliens – “this is it, what we build is what there is” – and in the aspects of authority trying to control the excesses of human behaviour, chiming with “the world without sin” of Serenity, though the uploaded memories and skills of another of Whedon’s works was not a conscious model. “I hadn’t thought about Dollhouse in years, but obviously it was in the back of my mind.”

Other authors mentioned included Iain Banks, Brookmyre first encountering him through The Wasp Factory before finding he had a second career as Iain M Banks, Neal Stephenson, whose Snow Crash he described as “one of the most prophetic novels ever written,” and China Miéville whom he said was “ingenious, one of the most creative minds working in the world today.”

With the station having been in operation for eighty years prior to the events of the novel, Brookmyre said he certainly intends to revisit the setting, with the possibility open of exploring both its future and its past, and he did say that there is a connection with the established universe of his other novels, one of the characters a distant descendant of another he has written previously.

Asked about the long-rumoured feature film of Pandaemonium, the audience were warned that it was never wise to become excited until the cameras were actually rolling but Brookmyre admitted to being very optimistic, saying that the production company who were developing it had recently had great success with their current film Anna and the Apocalypse screening at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas and at the Sitges Film Festival, and all going well Pandaemonium will be their next project, shooting next year.

Places in the Darkness is available now from Orbit

Thank you to Blackwells Bookshop and the Central Library for arranging and hosting the event

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