Christopher Brookmyre on how helping develop a computer game led to writing a sci-fi novel

Christopher Brookmyre, author of 'Bedlam'. Picture: Robert Perry
Christopher Brookmyre, author of 'Bedlam'. Picture: Robert Perry
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IT WAS a common question at readings. And in 16 years (and as many books) Christopher Brookmyre has done a lot of readings. So he has long lost count of the times he has been asked: why don’t you write science fiction?

Since the publication of his first book, Quite Ugly One Morning, when he was 26, Brookmyre has carved himself a tidy niche writing funny, action-packed, thrillers featuring likeable heros such as foul-mouthed hack Jack Parlabane, and Rangers-supporting cop Angelique de Xavia. But the question intrigued him.

“Obviously, there was something about the way I wrote which made people think I might be interested in writing sci-fi, because I don’t think they ask that of everybody,” he says, sitting at the kitchen table in his home, a Victorian schoolhouse in Bothwell. “Then a critic told me that all of my books have been science-fiction, because they all take place in a world which looks a bit like ours but isn’t really ours – and I knew exactly what he was getting at.”

We are here to discuss Bedlam, his first bona fide sci-fi book (though his 2009 novel Pandaemonium went some way down the road), out now with Orbit, the sci-fi imprint of his publisher Little, Brown. It might never have happened but for a phone call from computer games designers RedBedlam, who wanted to know if he’d be interested in working on a game. “With me, it’s always about the idea for the next story. I’d never think, well, I’d like to write sci-fi, but I’d better get on with writing crime. But getting involved with RedBedlam provided an impetus that wouldn’t have been there.

“When I started developing the idea, I thought I’m going to need a story here, I don’t want another first-person shooter where the only narrative is kill everybody who’s not you. And when I started thinking about the story and what I would do with it, I thought I would be as well writing a novel because I’m going to have to map out the whole story anyway.

“I would switch back and forth between thinking what would work in a game to what would work in a novel. I think there are certain similarities, you’re trying to immerse the reader or the player in a completely different world. It was very liberating to be able to draw upon games for inspiration, and show that there’s so much creativity that goes into these worlds. I had been inspired by so many games over the years, trying to bring that same sense of thrill into books.”

Brookmyre was a keen gamer, particular in the 1990s, the early days of the first person shooter, when he played competitively with an online “clan”. He stopped, he says, when his son Jack was born. Jack’s now 12. “In recent years, my exposure to gaming has been largely over my son’s shoulder. I had a wake-up moment last year when I said, ‘Let’s have a wee game of Quake 3’, and he absolutely annihilated me! He has the tactics and the reflexes and all that. So I’m not the gamer in the house anymore.”

The hero of Bedlam is Ross Baker, who works in research and development with a medical technology company in Stirling. He’s an overgrown adolescent whose world has just taken a lurch towards adulthood (he has just learned his girlfriend is pregnant) when it’s his turn to be guinea pig for the firm’s new brain scanner. When he exits the machine, he’s not himself, he’s a cyborg fighting invaders on a distant planet. And all this is strangely familiar, because he in inside Starfire, the game he spent his teenage years wired into.

After a few chapters of running and shooting, he falls through what seems like a glitch in the code and lands in another game, shooting at stooges in Nazi uniforms. Then, a high-speed chase begins, through a metaverse of game-worlds, from Grand Theft Auto-type car chase games to medieval world role-plays, rules, outfits and weapons changing as he goes. Ross soon discovers he isn’t the only human who’s ended up there. And, while you can’t be killed, the downside is that no one knows the way back – and Ross has important reasons for wanting to get back.

It’s trademark Brookmyre – the inventiveness, the sarcastic humour (there is a game world he created primarily to satirise the Daily Mail), the hero who is more competent than he seems, the violence (even more farcical than ever, since the fatally wounded simply “respawn”). But all is not well in game world: a shadowy police force called the 
Integrity are trying to shut down the portals between games, and interspersed chapters hint at an even darker metagame, involving Ross’s employer back on earth.

It’s also a romp through the history of video games, from the primary colours of Pac-Man in the 1980s, through platform games and first person shooters to today’s sophisticated graphics and large-scale internet-based games. Bedlam will chime with anyone who played the early internet-based games, relying on dodgy dial-up modems, and trying to make sure they were out when their parents got the phone bill.

“I think gaming has now got such a role in popular culture, and that hasn’t really been explored in fiction. They are a part of our personal history as we grow up. We’re used to the way pop music has a role in our lives, we refer to particular times in our lives and remember what we were listening to, the TV shows, the movies. I think increasingly people will also relate to what games they were playing. This book might be the video game equivalent of High Fidelity.”

While Bedlam is packed with references to existing games, he has made up a few too. It’s a balancing act: get the gaming references right or you will be “besieged” by gamers, but appeal to non-gamers too. Bedlam has it’s fair share of gutsy female characters, to ward off the accusation that it will be “a boys and toys book”.

And Brookmyre adds a few twists of his own. “Every time you play a game, you’re the hero,” he says. “The big breakthrough for me was when I thought, what if the guy finds himself inside a video game and he’s nobody, he’s just one of the canon fodder grunts that you normally kill on the first map. When I told Kerry and Nick from RedBedlam, they just lit up. And then I said that he goes into other worlds and they went: ‘Oh my god, no-one’s ever done that before!’”

There is a boyish excitement to all of this, as there often is about Brookmyre’s books. The man is a package of contradictions. He is an incredibly hard-working writer who rarely misses his mark, yet he is happy to describe his own books as “unashamed escapism”. He is unfailingly polite, a domesticated dad who takes care of things at home while his wife Marisa works as an anaesthetist, yet I’ve heard him tell potty-mouthed tales at book festivals that would make Irvine Welsh blush.

He has never made grand claims for his books. He has thought up ever funnier titles – Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye – and more bizarre adventures. They’re violent, yes, but when Jack Parlabane disembowels a dead enemy and abseils down a building using his intestines as a climbing rope, it is also darkly funny. Bedlam is in a strange position in his oeuvre: it contains some of the most serious material he has written so far, yet its gaming context will make it easy for critics to dismiss.

His crime novels are taking a darker turn, too, since 2011’s Where The Bodies Are Buried, his first featuring private investigator Jasmine Sharp, said by some to be the best book he has written. “I’d say [the Jasmine Sharp books] are the only ones which are actually dark,” he says. “All my previous books are escapist, there’s always a happy ending, they’re fairly morally unambiguous.” The third Jasmine Sharp book, Flesh Wounds, just submitted to the publisher, is by contrast “probably the most morally complex book I’ve ever written”.

Is he feeling challenged to take his work in new directions? To be, for want of a better word, more serious? “Any time you feel you’ve built up some new literary muscles, you want to see what you can do with them. And a certain maturity has unavoidably crept in. The type of thing that my imagination and my curiosity drive me to explore aren’t the same as when I was 26.

“Every so often, if I’m flicking back through an older book, I think I couldn’t go back to writing that, but part of me wishes I could, because everything just seemed a bit more breezy and easy to address. I could write things much more quickly, because I wasn’t compelled to go into some of the psychological depths that I am now. And it’s not necessarily to say that what I’m writing now is better. I think at this age you’ve got to watch for getting bogged down in those levels of complexity, at the cost of pace. One of the reasons I’m very happy with Bedlam is that I think I was able to marry the two. It’s very pacy and action driven and yet there are philosophical elements to it that I would never have been able to write ten or 15 years ago.”

Sci-fi, as many who read it will be quick to point out, is not about spaceships, it’s about ideas. “I think you can do more when it comes to philosophy in science fiction than you can in other genres, because you can actually create the thought experiment and people it and see what would happen in a narrative. Most people, when they’re excited by a science fiction book, are not excited by space ships and laser guns, they’re excited by ideas.”

In Bedlam, Brookmyre explores the theory, expounded by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, that the world in which we live is a simulation set up by more intelligent beings. Or, putting it crudely, we are all inside someone else’s computer game. Ross Baker, faced with the possibility that his life outside game world never happened, has to work out what gives him his sense of self, which is a long way away from shooting cyborgs with a laser canon. Bedlam is “unlikely to be a one-off” (a trilogy of games is already planned) and Brookmyre suspects it might turn increasingly political.

I wonder if Brookmyre is concerned about the future of the book, exploring, as some writers are beginning to do, ways in which novels can work as apps, and so forth? “I’m always keen to see what innovations people might come up with, but I’m not convinced. People got very excited about some of the possibilities with DVDs, but the technology never really got applied. People still want the narrative. I think for all the technological advancements, we are still going to want to be taken along for the narrative ride. So I’m never concerned about the implications for the novel, I think the novel will look after itself.”

• Bedlam, by Christopher Brookmyre, is published by Orbit, priced £17.99