Places in the Darkness - Chris Brookmyre

Places in the Darkness - Chris Brookmyre ****

Evolving from the irreverent tone of his earlier violent crime fiction, I guess we've all had to accept that Christopher Brookmyre is now the more mature Chris Brookmyre, but it can't be denied that the author was running out of steam in a limited genre that he had metaphorically as well as literarily beaten to death. Since then he's been more ambitious in his range and subject matter and his latest science-fiction work Places in the Darkness is one of his most promising ventures yet.

Alice Blake of the Federation of National Governments has been assigned a six-month posting to Ciudad de Cielo to replace the former head of Security oversight on the station. CdC is a space station in orbit seventy thousand kilometres above Ocean Terminal on earth. As they are currently working on a project to build a spaceship, the Arca Estrella to set out for other habitable planets, the station is supposed to be an ideal, a place that "should be clean and pure because it's the birthplace of mankind's future". The FNG however are not unaware that in reality corruption and criminality are widespread on CdC (SeeDee for short and also by nature), so Alice has been sent to observe and report on the scale of the problem and monitor the efforts that Seguridad are taking to prevent it, or determine even whether they are actually facilitating the criminality.

That would certainly seem to be the case from the activities of Seguidad agent sergeant Nikki Freeman, well known to the seedier side of the station personnel as "Nikki Fixx", who seems to have a hand in every kind of illegal activity on the station, from backhanders, protection rackets and prostitution to customs evasion and bootlegging. Alice, posing as a rookie FNG observer Jessica Cho, has been assigned as an observer working alongside Nikki, is beginning to get an idea of how things really operate on Seedee. There's a more serious matter to be investigated however; a body found in pieces floating in a zero gravity tank, it's the first official murder on CdC, and things are about to get even worse.

Essentially Places in the Darkness functions according to the familiar path of the buddy cop movie. A streetwise fast-and-loose detective with the local law enforcement (Nikki) has been teamed up with a straight-laced inexperienced "Fed" (Alice), giving the official a lesson in having to deal with the harsh realities of life that they don't tell you about in the instruction manuals at the academy. It's not however just a matter of placing a well-worn genre convention in a science-fiction setting just to freshen it up a bit. Brookmyre uses the self-contained world of CdC to look at relevant questions that we have not about the increasing use of technology to monitor citizens activities and curtail freedoms, and the increasing control that big business - the Quadriga consortium here - exert over individuals and governments.

Places in the Darkness manages to hold the future up as a mirror to contemporary society by reflecting on similar flawed puritanical and authoritarian attempts to create an ideal society in the past in the exploring of new frontiers and in the Prohibition laws. But Chris Brookmyre also wants to look beyond the now to explore the rationale behind technology as a tool to create a perfect society and question whether that really is a tenable concept. Instead of creating an advanced society, technology might even be a trap that we build around ourselves, and instead of advancing human civilisation we actually need to consider whether it might be dragging us backwards into the past.

Again, the idea of a space-station as a cross-section of society, and its attempts to create a perfect society in a flawed environment dependent on technology and heedless of the reality of human nature is not a particularly new concept in science-fiction. Chris Brookmyre however does succeed in bringing back a little of his old style dynamics and social commentary here, with those familiar barbs of coarse language, extreme violence and black humour. Nothing is as straightforward as it seems however and the truth is always shifting - another consequence of advanced technology - and Brookmyre has plenty of paranoid conspiracy twists to throw into Places in the Darkness. It's his most convincing work in this genre so far.

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre is published by Orbit on 9th November 2017

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