Review: Bedlam

BedlamCoverby Christopher Brookmyre

Orbit, out now

Ross Barker, Stirling-based tech firm console jockey, finds himself trapped in a world made up of computer games, vintage and current… Can he escape, get back to his pregnant girlfriend and uncover a high-tech conspiracy…?

Crime writer Christopher Brookmyre is known for his fast-paced, garrulous and scabrous novels that brought a breath of fresh air to a moribund genre. He has often said that readers asked when he might turn his hand to science fiction. With Bedlam he’s done just that, not altogether successfully unfortunately.

There’s nothing wrong with the writing here, although it can sometimes seems like Brookmyre is on autopilot. Despite that there are some great laugh-out-loud one-liners, but there’s also a fair share of groaners or jokes that simply fall flat. From a cracking opening, with Ross taking part in a pal’s brain scan experiment, Brookmyre throws both his protagonist and his reader into an unknown world.

However, as things unfold the story becomes ever more predictable. Despite the author’s claims in interviews that no-one has done anything quite like this before, Bedlam is an all-too-obvious mash-up of Tron, The Matrix, Wreck It Ralph and various virtual reality science fiction novels, perhaps most notably Tad Williams’ Otherworld series or the more recent Ready Player One.

Hopping from one game environment to another, Ross is put through a series of repetitive scenarios, while other chapters attempt to suggest a real-world conspiracy that he has unwittingly become involved in and must eventually subvert. I can’t help but feel that Iain M. Banks would have done a far better job of this scenario, but I also think he probably wouldn’t touch something this hackneyed in the first place.

That’s not to say that Bedlam is not an enjoyable read: it’s fun while it lasts, if a little slight, but it also outstays its welcome by running through the same scenario again and again, postponing the inevitable climax—in that respect it’s like watching a film about or based on computer games or someone else playing a game you’d much rather be playing yourself. The fact that this book grew out of a real computer game project, rather than a determination by Brookmyre to properly tackle science fiction as a form, is telling. He’s probably got a great, proper science fiction novel in him, but I’m afraid Bedlam is not it.

Verdict: Amusing enough, but not as original or as groundbreaking as it thinks it is, 6/10

Brian J. Robb

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