Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre

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Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: Brookmyre takes a step away from crime thrillers to try out science fiction. He's an enjoyable writer, but this time the decent pacing and humorous moments don't entirely cover up an idea that has been used elsewhere.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Orbit
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0356502137

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The title of Christopher Brookmyre's debut novel, Quite Ugly One Morning was enough to make me pick it up, but it was the quality of the content that has kept me reading his work. He writes crime thrillers with a humour that extends beyond the amusing titles. Bedlam, however, is something a little different, a nod towards the science fiction which, the author biography suggests, people have been nagging him to write.

Ross Baker is a wage slave at Neurosphere, writing computer code for a new brain scanning system. His girlfriend, Carol, is not happy about the hours he puts into his job, thinking he's being played for a fool by doing extra work for no recognition. Ross thinks they're about to break up, but soon discovers their relationship is about to move to a level he was too busy to anticipate. After a rough morning, he agrees to have his brain scanned in one of the trial machines.

He awakes in a world that he doesn't immediately recognise, but which seems strangely familiar. He soon discovers he has somehow landed in the computer game Starfire. Among the standard characters he recalls from having played the game, he also runs into people just like him. Searching for a way back home, he moves from one game world to another and finds others who have dropped into this digital world, not all of them unwillingly or with pure motives.

I've run into a few books of this nature recently, with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and Daemon by Daniel Suarez perhaps chief among them. Indeed, the basic set up of someone dropped into a computer game and fighting for an exit as well as for control, is very similar to that of the Tron films. What sets Bedlam apart from most of these is the humour prevalent in the book. Brookmyre has always been an amusing writer and that doesn't change here, even though one of his jokes was written in a style that took me a moment to figure it out.

Brookmyre also writes the unreality of the situation very realistically. Ross' reaction to being dropped into an unrealistic situation is similar to how I would have reacted; confusion accompanied by swearing, followed by a slow dawning of comprehension accompanied by more swearing. As a non-gamer, my comprehension would have dawned slower than Ross' as I have heard of few of the games and played even fewer. I also liked the realistic way that Ross learned, adapting to each new world faster and faster as he went on.

There were a couple of aspects of the book I didn't enjoy quite so much, however. Brookmyre often uses his writing to have his say on issues he feels strongly about and the world run by Daily Mail readers seemed a little unnecessary and interrupted the flow, as if he stopped plotting and climbed on his high horse for a moment. He also mixed up the game world and the future real world a little with no sphere of reference, which caused me a little confusion until I adjusted and, to be fair, it did all become clear eventually.

As an existing fan of Brookmyre's work, the first of these issues was expected and whilst it did disrupt the flow a little, it wasn't a major problem for this reader. A first timer to his work may find it more of a distraction, although it is only a minor aberration and there is still much to enjoy. For existing fans, although Bedlam marks a change of genre, the writing style and sense of humour remain and mark this out as a typical Brookmyre novel, so it fits well amongst his back catalogue.

My main issue here is the lack of originality on display. Brookmyre often takes conventional ideas and moves them out of context, like the oil rig school reunion of Quite Ugly One Morning, but there is little of that here. Describing the book to a colleague, I referred to Bedlam as 'like Tron, but with jokes', which may be a little simplistic, but isn't entirely inaccurate. The idea of how Ross ended up in the game world is a little different and the first person perspective in the games was well presented, but it was too familiar to be entirely original and that is a shame.

For those who enjoy thrillers with a computerised twist, the aforementioned Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and Daemon by Daniel Suarez are both well worth a read.

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