Written by Christopher Brookmyre
Released: 7th February 2013. Published by: Orbit.
384 pages, £17.99
Heaven is a prison. Hell is a playground. Would it be your ultimate fantasy to enter the world of a video game? A realm where you don't have to go to work or worry about your health; where you can look like a hero or a goddess; where you can fly space-ships, slay dragons, yet all of it feels completely real. A realm where there are no consequences and no responsibilities. Or would it be your worst nightmare? Stuck in an endless state of war and chaos where the pain and fear feels real and from which not even death can offer an escape. Prison or playground. Heaven or hell. This is where you find out. This is white-knuckle action, sprawling adventure, merciless satire and outrageous humour like you've never experienced. This is Bedlam.
Brookmyre has a long, fairly distinguished career as a novelist behind him, and indeed, has been held up as the defining writer of Tartan Noir, but ‘Bedlam’ represents his first real foray into the realms of speculative fiction. Most of his books – and, it must be said, his best ones – have been biting satires; his debut, ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’, dealt with corruption in the NHS, while his later ‘Boiling a Frog’ tore apart both the Scottish Parliament and the Catholic Church – although it’s worth noting that he’s equally happy satirising psychics and mediums as he is the Establishment. For all of that though, it has been very clear that he is something of a geek. For every satire he writes, he tends to follow up with a parody of something. ‘One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night’, for example, combines a school reunion with Die Hard on an oil rig/holiday resort.
Most pertinently though, are his more recent works. ‘Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’ made a character’s devotion to Joss Whedon’s ‘Firefly’ almost a plot point, while ‘Pandaemonium’ re-trod some of the religious ground from ‘Boiling a Frog’, and teamed it up with a bunch of school kids suddenly having to live through a real-world ‘Doom’, chainsaws, shotguns and all. In ‘Bedlam’, this is taken to a whole new level (pun sort of intended).
As the summary suggests, ‘Bedlam’ is a book about videogames. Specifically, what would happen if you woke up one day to find that you were a character in one? That might depend on a couple of things. If you were a gamer yourself, you might quickly realise what was going on, particularly if, like our hero Ross, you were familiar with the game in which you woke up. If not, then…well. It’s probably not going to go well for you. How would you cope if you went from being an accountant in Leicester to a cyborg alien on the wrong side of a galactic war? Of course, you might not wake up in a super violent first person shooter. You might wake up in, say, ‘Grand Theft Auto’. Or ‘Dark Souls’. And leaving aside all the other sorts of games which revolve around committing extreme violence against others, one suspects that too long spent jumping around in the world of a ‘Crash Bandicoot’ or a ‘Rayman’ would have dramatic effects on your sanity, to say nothing of having nothing to do but drive around a racing track all day, every day for the rest of your life.
It is this part of the book that is the most successful. Brookymre clearly knows his stuff, and as a writer extremely skilled with dark humour, not to mention the best place to deploy a swear word in any given sentence, the laughs come thick and fast. It helps that Ross is an engaging, relatable character, driven more by the desire to get his life back on track than he is to solving the mystery of just what is going on. It’s great fun, intriguing and well written; however, it must be admitted that a lot of the enjoyment to be had may be dependent on how many references you get, although the only other person I know who has read it is not a gamer, and thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless.
For the most part, the mystery – or at least the central one – is well developed, as you’d expect from a writer with sixteen other books under his belt. It also draws on some interesting philosophical aspects, mostly relating to Nick Bostrum’s Simulation Argument: “at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching the posthuman stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run significant number of simulations or (variations) of their evolutionary history; (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the naïve transhumanist dogma that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.”
This is mostly relevant to the B plot, and while interesting, it isn’t given enough time to satisfactorily develop. Hints are given, but they focus on characters we barely know, or who are completely divorced from the rest of the book. In all fairness, developing this side of things more or earlier would have rather spoiled other aspects of the book, but it is still hard not to feel that the ending was a bit out of left field.
Still, this should not put you off from reading the book. Brookmyre is a fine writer, and if nothing else it will tickle your funny bone. And if you haven’t read his other books, check them out as well.