Wot I Read: Christopher Brookmyre’s Bedlam

By Alec Meer on January 28th, 2013 at 4:00 pm.

There have been many novels about videogames, as a visit to the Halo- and Mass Effect-strewn shelves of your local bookshop’s sci-fi and fantasy section will reveal, but rather more rare are the novels about videogaming. Bedlam, a new sci-fi novel by renowned Scottish crime author Christopher Brookmyre, both is and isn’t about videogaming. While it is centred around a high-concept take on the PC shooters of the early-to-mid 1990s, Brookmyre’s own electronic weapons of choice, it’s as much a plunge into a Tron-esque digital-made-flesh fantasy as it is an examination of why we play.

Quake II, Unreal, botmaches in Quake III and, at Bedlam’s most contemporary perimeter, Half-Life are the types and era of PC gaming which define Brookmyre’s novel, and although at times it seems to be exploring Second Life-like virtual world concepts, it doesn’t really touch upon MMOs and the like. This serves the book well, as its in-game scenes are concentrated on the naive unreality and implausible tropes of 3D-accelerated shooters’ earliest days, rather than on games which strive to more accurately recreate human existence. Quake II is the rarely-mentioned star of the show, though (at a guess for licensing-avoiding reasons) another, extremely similar but entirely fabricated, early 90s shooter named ‘Starfire’ is the official setting.

The book’s protagonist, confusingly neurotic-yet-laddish scientific researcher Ross Baker, finds himself sucked into Starfire’s humans vs Strogg alien cyborg war without end, and is soon questioning whether its brown canyons and randomly-placed rocket launchers are a fantasy, a dream, an experiment gone wrong or, in fact, the truth of his existence. Before too long, he finds himself in other games too, and is gradually able to employ the gaming skills of his youth in order to survive their reliably dystopic settings.

For much of the book, the essential mystery takes a backseat to a nostalgic trip through the tropes of gaming, and especially early first-person shooters. Respawning, quickloads, console commands, scripted setpieces and clipping errors all play their part, and if there’s intended to be any true horror to Ross’ predicament, it’s somewhat lost to the clear fondness of author and hero alike for those youth-defining gaming experiences. It’s a celebration of simple shapes, idiot AI, hax and the juevenile excess of id and Epic at their Voodoo-powered peak. This aspect of the book is not an affectation – the level of detail as Brookymre revels in describing the classic maps of his classic games reveals a clear and honest passion for the salad days of PC gaming. It out-nerds anything we write on this notoriously nerdy site, put it that way.

While Bedlam isn’t afraid to poke fun at the intrinsic silliness of eternal wars in made-up, low-polygon worlds, it’s very much a love letter to the games that made Brookmyre. It’s infectious too – it had me yearning for that simpler age of less fettered escapism, when new shooters were sold on how bizarre their weapons and worlds were, on the wonder of their mere existence, rather than with multi-million-dollar online TV series or awkward on-stage presentations by Linkin Park.

In truth though, this nostalgia only preoccupies some of Bedlam’s 400 pages. It’s also a Vernor Vinge-esque tale of an interconnected electronic society, where the lines between organic and digital life begin to blur, though it’s more interested in using this to conjure mystery and spectacle than it is in posing/answering questions about the Singularity. Though there’s ongoing foreshadowing of what’s really going on, answers and resolution happen in something of a hurry, with perhaps not enough time spent in the ‘real’ world to lend the wider outcome as much resonance as those early scenes exploring Starfire’s starkly surreal world.

I found it hard, too, to sympathise with protagonist Ross – an Arthur Dent analogue but coarser of tone and more openly heroic, and unfortunately lacking in much pathos despite our knowledge that his very existence is in question. Perhaps too much time is spent on enthusiastic description of the wonders and horrors he encounters, and then again on a steady stream of blunted, coarse and Scots-inflected bon mots that are too at odds with any sense that Ross is in a terrifying situation and may not ever make it home to his pregnant wife and reassuringly mortal body.

In fact, Bedlam simply seems to be doing too much at once: the gaming nostalgia, the cyberpunk sci-fi and the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide high-concept farce. Obviously humour is entirely subjective, but I felt the ever-present and often oddly loutish gags regularly stole the focus from any discussion (be it serious or comical) of just why these, by modern standards, absurd proto-shooters meant so much to now-thirty somethings, and how strange their tropes are if approached from a real-world perspective.

The future-tech meta-narrative is, I think, even more a victim of Bedlam’s imbalance: big ideas are raised, but a degree of handwaving used to make it all work out. Ross’ late-book plunge into skipping at speed through hordes of game ‘worlds’ also seemed too much, a carnival of shallow silliness at the expense of the more engaging brainstorming on how games would look and feel if make physical.

I really can’t argue with the thrill of seeing the games of my youth transition to the printed page, and it’s especially pleasing to see this done with clear affection rather than dry pomposity (I don’t enjoy Vinge’s writing anywhere near as much as I do his ideas) or the sneery ‘gamers, eh?’ stereotyping that’s prevalent in film and TV’s general depiction of this sub-culture. The playful riddle of which game Ross is in now, what will happen if he’s ‘killed’ and how to outwit inhuman enemies: that’s the stuff which works best here.

This is about PC games, not PC gamers, about recreating the polygonal universes of the past in proud prose, new perspectives on impossible worlds we have for long years taken for granted. If there is a Bedlam sequel (there is talk of this being a trilogy), I hope it can do more with that, with the majesty and the madness of gaming’s internal logic (e.g. magical floating health-packs that only the game’s hero can use), and dial back the uneven humour.

Bedlam, by Christopher Brookmyre, is released in hardback on February 7. You can read an extract here.

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63 Comments »

  1. Lambchops says:

    I tend to find Brookmyre’s stuff sounds better on the blurb than the actual book turns out to be. I’ve read two or three of his books (titles escape me) and while ranging from rather entertaining to pretty decent they didn’t quite have me rushing out to buy more.

    • Guvornator says:

      I remember finding “one Fine Day In The Middle Of the Night” incredibly entertaining, to the point I bought at least 4 more of his books. At which point I realized it most have been some sort of fluke…

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  2. rawrty says:

    Glad to see more coverage from RPS on gamish novels from time to time as I’m always looking for something new and interesting to read.

    if you are looking for another game-centric sci-fi/fantasy novel I’d recommend Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It’s about a virtual reality MMORPG in the future created by a guy who was obssessed with the games and gamer culture from our time. Pretty fun read even if it seems to go over-the-top sometimes trying to make some references.

    • jmtd says:

      “Ready Player One” was fun in a decidedly-brainless sort-of way. I preferred Walter Jon Williams’ “This is Not a Game: You Don’t Get a Second Life”.

      • Tacroy says:

        Huh! Somehow, it never occurred to me that he wrote anything besides the one book of his I’d read, Implied Spaces. I guess I have a new author to look up.

        • rawrty says:

          Implied Spaces was awesome. I liked This is Not a Game too, but Implied Spaces was amazing.

          • Bookagame says:

            Yeah I’ve also thought of that one “Ready Player One” while reading the presentation of Bedlam. I hope that the similarities are only illusions, but as I didn’t read any of those books I’m not in place of talking of anything. I’m glad that another “Wot I read” was released !

            I’ve made a blog that talks about books linked to video games : http://www.booksandgames.net/wordpress/ … Enjoy !

    • frightlever says:

      Ready Player One is a really good, bad novel. I enjoyed it immensely but it was really badly written and only the deluge of nostalgia made it fun.

      • Tacroy says:

        Whaaat! How was it badly written?

        • jmtd says:

          Without really answering your question I have to concur with the OP one layer up. Hard to pick out precisely why it was so… I think more it was a rip-roaring ride through a setting which was sketched out very quickly and would not stand up to much closer inspection.

      • rawrty says:

        I have to agree. It went downhill after the Tomb of Horrors imo. The main thing for me was that it started to seem like he was trying to pack in more and more cultural references as opposed to just telling the story. Still a fun read for when you’re in the mood for something that doesn’t require much thought.

        Another indulgent, fun read about a MMORPG crossing over to the real world is Daemon by Daniel Saurez

    • Hawkseraph says:

      Has no-one read Epic? It’s a novel written by Conor Kostick, and it’s the best game-centric novel I’ve read so far…

      • iucounu says:

        Yes. You’re absolutely right. It’s the only novel I’ve ever read where the S in the SF is the economics of a virtual world. The sequel is great too.

        It’s a shame that it didn’t get more attention, but it was kind of badly published initially.

    • Mungrul says:

      I’m currently reading Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE after having picked up the Kindle version for 99p.
      It’s a good thriller, and some of its ideas about MMOs and gaming are interesting, but it’s a little… naïve.
      It lopes along at a cracking pace, and the stuff in the real world is damn good, but unfortunately undermined by Stephenson’s obvious lack of research into online worlds. As you realise some of his gaming concepts are flawed and unrealistic, you begin to question whether his research into other areas may be similarly lacking.
      Still, a good read, containing passages eerily reminiscent of Dwarf Fortress which Stephenson has admitted to not even being aware of. I’d recommend it to any gamer; just try not to get too sniffy about his lack of understanding of your hobby.

      Oh, and if you want a real mind-blower about alternate, simulated realities, it doesn’t get much better than Jeff Noon’s Vurt. Noon doesn’t even attempt to describe gaming in a way we’re familiar with. He comes up with his own idea and forces it upon you, and it’s a wonderful jaunt into a twisted world.

  3. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    On a related note. My wife bought me Jim’s book for christmas and I’ve just started reading it. Great stuff, although I have started thinking of Mr. Rossignol as a mere mortal now as a result…

  4. Ayam says:

    This reminds me I ought to pick up that copy of Halting State by Charles Stross that’s been gathering pixel-like dust. Couldn’t quite get into it the first time around.

    • iucounu says:

      Didn’t really enjoy Halting State, and can’t remember much if anything about it. I am rather furrowing my brow re: Charlie Stross because he seems to be writing fewer and fewer books that I like that much.

      • jmtd says:

        Sadly agree.

        • iucounu says:

          You know what it is? Charlie’s best books (Accelerando, Atrocity Archive) were written as linked short stories and a serial respectively. His skills as an author revolve around… density? Compression of ideas? When he has the license to just splurge out a 100,000 word novel I think his work gets flabby. Still one of my favourite authors, but I’m a bit concerned and occasionally wish I was his editor.

      • Tacroy says:

        His Laundry series is still pretty good, though admittedly the short stories are probably better.

        • Gap Gen says:

          The Laundry series feels too much like self-insertion Lovecraft fan fiction to me. The protagonist’s voice is a little too “Unix guru” for my liking. I still enjoyed it, but the writing irked me.

    • Daniel Klein says:

      Read the story. Notice no one’s mentioned Halting State yet. Log in to post about Stross. See someone’s done it now and all that is left to me is a weak meta-comment, maybe with a pointlessly misused hashtag. #firstworldproblems

      EDIT: I guess I could also say that I enjoyed it immensely, but I’m a bit of a Stross fanboy. Stephenson tried to play with videogames in REAMDE as well, but that felt so horribly dated.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Yes, I confess I gave up on Reamde when he started describing an MMO in great detail. Worth pressing on with it?

        • iucounu says:

          It’s Stephenson’s weakest novel to date and occasionally it feels like a libertarian screed. I read it, but probably wouldn’t read it again.

          • Guvornator says:

            Also, as with all Stephenson books, you risk serious injury if you read it on the tube. To be honest, it sort of reads like his take on the “Holiday thriller” genre. I enjoyed it, but it was pretty forgettable by his high standards.

        • Daniel Klein says:

          It feels like an author from the middle of the 90s breathlessly writing about the possibilities in this MMO thing he heard of in his time travels. So, err, no, not really. It’s good yarn and the game stuff goes away soon enough, but it reads more like one of those discardable novels you buy for a long-haul flight than a proper Neal Stephenson book.

        • Matt_W says:

          Competent thriller, but it does sort of dribble away at the end.

        • Gap Gen says:

          OK, I might give it another go, but sounds like I’m not missing much. I did like Snowcrash, even if it is completely ridiculous (which I suspect is the point).

    • Mungrul says:

      Halting State’s good, but the follow up, Rule34, is better hand-over-fist, with one of the best psychopaths I’ve read.

  5. iucounu says:

    I very much liked his early Jack Parlabane stuff – kind of Scots-inflected Carl Hiaasen with plenty of horrid Tories to put the boot into. This seems like an odd choice.

  6. Ian says:

    What are this book’s graphics like, Alec?

    • Gap Gen says:

      The paperback itself isn’t great, but this is to be expected. If you want good graphics, I’d recommend going for the ebook version. The great thing about the ebook version is that you can increase the page resolution until you can barely see the individual letters.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      Do the pages turn smoothly? Is the font large enough to read comfortably?

      • Gap Gen says:

        Oh yeah, that’s a point, can you get up to sixty pages a second or is it limited to thirty pps?

        Oh, new idea: Procedurally generated book. You know on phones when it suggests the next word to type sometimes? Just keep clicking that.

    • noom says:

      I hear it’s all ASCII

    • FCA says:

      Ah, but could books be considered art? The cover for example could be made be an artist, but that is certainly not the essence. I hear people could be emotionally moved by the contents, but that is just because they have fashioned some sort of fantasy world out of the book, certainly nothing like the deep emotion that comes from appreciating true art. Also the author has to be very concrete, no abstract, nonsense words are ever used. Lastly, I picked some ‘popular’ novels up from the supermarket (bouquet or something) and it was filth, certainly not art. Therefore, books cannot be art forever, n the way cavewall paintings are.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Books aren’t art. Art requires interaction between the piece of art and its audience, else it has no meaning. A book is just a static collection of words with no input. War and Peace is more linear than Call of Duty. Hell, I saw a picture of a cookery book once and it said nothing to me about the human spirit. Someone told me about The Tiger That Came To Tea and didn’t cry once. I tried reading A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu and I couldn’t figure out how to turn the first page, and couldn’t understand any of the French. Obviously trash.

        EDIT: OK, fine, trolling Roger Ebert is old news.

        • Johnny Go-Time says:

          Problem is, the genre has really stagnated since Hamlet 1.

          That developer’s early stuff showed potential. “Julius Caesar” was pretty good even though he obv. came up with the death-scene first and then wrote the whole book around it!

          But yeah Hamlet was revolutionary and I was totally a fanboy up until that f&!#% cash-grab Macbeth. Can you say “Doom 3″? Except instead of “weeee revisit dark corridors” it was “weeee revisit inner turmoil”. Maybe if it had gotten an extra few months in editing instead of being rushed for Xmas release date…

          • Gap Gen says:

            Well, bear in mind with all his works you have to compile it with a theatre group first, otherwise you’re just reading the source code for a play. And Julius Caesar was based on a true story apparently, so I’ll let him off a bit for the ending.

            He did have a nasty habit of starting a series mid-way and never revisiting it, though. Fair enough, he did Henry: Episode IV, Henry: Episode V and Henry: Episode VI (in 3 parts, no less), but never went back and did the first three. No wonder JJ Abrams is slated to take over from the bard. Apparently they roped Alec Guinness into it, but you can tell he thought the guy was a hack who couldn’t write dialogue to save his life.

  7. James G says:

    Most of Brookmyre’s stuff has quite clear gaming influence, even when it isn’t a major theme. In one of his recent books, Pandemonium, he even uses the gaming references to add a nice bit of misdirection. (Even if the outcome is still somewhat bizarre given his usual style.)

  8. shaun says:

    More like Christopher Bookmyre.

  9. Lambchops says:

    I remember from childhood that Terry Pratchett’s “Only You Can Save Mankind” was an excellent example of the “you’re in a game” style of story.

    However there’s another kid’s title flitting on the edges of my memory that did something similar and for the life of me I can’t remember what it is, possibly had a female author, think it had a similar conceit where stuff that happened “in a game” had real world effects (or possibly more along the line’s of them playing a game in the real world), but for the life of me I can’t remember anything else about it other than I really enjoyed it.

    • iucounu says:

      Yes. I think I know the one you mean. Arcade machines with the little pixel folk coming to life? Some kind of video game tournament?

      • Lambchops says:

        Possibly, trying to find it via google is proving difficult as I don’t have specific enough memories of it to avoid getting swathes of unrelated results!

  10. mpk says:

    Big fan of Brookmyre, and gaming influences run throughout a few of his books – the male protagonist in A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away is a gamer who used to run a LAN cafe/stroke geek den, and Pandemonium would make a better Doom movie than the Doom movie.

    Will definitely grab this when it’s released, and glad to see it’s not another novel about how fucked up his school was (he has serious issues about his school).

    • Bedlam_The_Game says:

      Glad to hear you guys are enjoying Brookmyre’s book so far, you may have heard, ‘Bedlam’ is now available in paperback and to celebrate, Brookmyre and Alienware are offering one winner the chance to level up their gaming experience with the Alienware X51. We’re also giving five runners up concept art from ‘Bedlam The Game’, signed by Christopher Brookmyre himself. Follow the link for details of how to enter this free and easy competition http://bit.ly/AlienwareBedlamCompetition , good luck!

  11. phuzz says:

    This is probably not the right place to put this, but what the hell.
    In other ‘games in other mediums’ news, Charlie Brooker is doing another series of NewsWipe, except now it’s WeeklyWipe, and given the praise for the one off GamesWipe, he should be including notable gaming news.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Interesting. Newswipe was Brooker’s strongest show, in that it mixed his excellent invective with a subject that strongly needs decent coverage. I remember Newswipe covering the phone hacking thing before it broke as a story the media cared about.

  12. BruceFnLee says:

    Please continue the Wot I Read series.

  13. Krayy says:

    I have all Brookmyre’s books and have found (almost) all of them very entertaining, “Sacred Art of Stealing” being my fave.

    If you’re interested in video game books, try Halting State by Charles Stross. It’s written in 2nd person and is about a very real online theft in a WoW-esque game setting. Brilliant.

  14. granderojo says:

    Never heard of Brookmyer before this. Color me excited.

  15. Mrs Columbo says:

    I’m glad he’s finally getting a mention on a PC gaming site. Tons of his books have PC game references, the one that springs to mind is the power station in “A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away” called ‘Dubh Ardrain’. It’s Gaelic for (as close as possible) Black Mesa.

  16. Eight Rooks says:

    I’m intrigued, despite the flaws mentioned. There’s definitely a dearth of writers who can get nods to current or (relatively) recent pop culture down right, let alone videogames – Reamde was utterly awful in places, and I say this as someone who counts Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle as four of the greatest books ever written.

    Also, I’d stick Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep/A Deepness In The Sky on that list, so I’m vaguely curious as to what about those books would strike anyone as dry and pompous. Then again I detest (and I do mean detest) pretty much everything of Cory Doctorow’s I’ve ever read, so I’m probably not au fait with what fiction most nerds or geeks or whoever think is cool in general.

  17. SltyDg says:

    “Surface Detail” by Iain M. Banks takes MMO games to their inevitable conclusion, after a fashion. I thought it was brilliant although as with a lot of Banks’ Culture novels it gets a little breathless as it nears the finish line. But really worth reading for all you lot!

    I think this is the first forum I’ve ever joined/commented on, everyone. I don’t even play many games. My laptop struggles to run Skyrim on LOW. I just love the writing on this site. Please keep up the good work.