Reviews: Places in the Darkness

Places in the Darkness,

Chris Brookmyre,

Orbit Books

(cover artwork by Steve Stone)

Welcome to Ciudad de Cielo, or CdC, a city in the sky, orbiting high above planet Earth, a shining beacon to the blue world below. Home to the Quadriga, a consortium of four mega corporations and the brightest minds humanity has to offer, working on the most advanced research on – well, near – the planet, with the ultimate aim of preparing a generational starship. This is technology not just to better life on Earth, but to prepare the human race to expand out into the stars. An orbital city of thousands, a crime-free utopia of brilliant minds high above the Earth, bringing knowledge and technology to the world below, like some modern Prometheus, while the other foot is readying the long walk to deep space. The pinnacle of human civilisation’s evolution.

Or so the brochures and corporate PR would have it. As anyone who has ever studied utopias knows, they are rarely perfect, human nature just doesn’t allow for it. And human nature is at the core of Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre is a long-established member of the “Tartan Noir”, the brace of internationally bestselling Scottish crime writers (along with the likes of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and more), but here he’s going science fiction, although for lovers of his more Earthbound crime novels, there’s still much here they too can enjoy.

CdC started as a floating lab facility, with the “wheels” at either end being added as it grew, that central shaft offering micro gravity facilities for some advanced research and manufacture, the wheel sections simulating gravity. And “ideal society” claim or not, like every other human city in history it is stratified and with a hierarchy from the corporate suits and top scientists at the peak, down to mass of regular workers low down. The people who do the actual work – cleaners, joiners, electricians, medics, cops (well, private corporation cops), and where you have all of this population there will be a dark economy – bootleg booze, underground clubs, prostitution, and most regualr folks working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. The side of life the CdC like to pretend they left below on Earth; this is more Babylon 5’s Down Below than Star Trek’s shiny Federation.

And it’s into this Alice Blake is sent, a representative of the federated world governments, who keep a close eye on the CdC, the corporations forever wary of too much oversight, or intrusion into how they run things. Alice, adopted child of high flying government types, has been raised and schooled to fit perfectly into her niche and she actually believes the PR blurb about this idealised society and the selfless work leading to the stars and humanity’s destiny. But she is also enough of a political animal to realise her boss is sending her to take over the security gig so she can get a close look at how the corporations are running things. But the myth of the crime-free orbital society is about to be brutally shattered – the low level crimes the CdC can hide, but murder? An especially cruel murder and mutilation? No, that’s going to leak out. Hell of a first day for Alice, paired with the security team’s Nikki Freeman, a former homicide detective and only one on the private security force with the experience to work such a case.

But Nikki is also known as “Nikki Fixx”, a go-to, a fixer, a grifter, working both sides of her badge. Everything Alice despises; Alice, in turn is looked down on by Nikki as a privileged and rule-bound type who has no real idea how things work. In the best mismatched cop-buddy tradition they’re going to be flung together and find themselves spiraling down a far deeper rabbit hole than either could have anticipated, an investigation that will snake around itself, from conspiracy theories and power politics at the highest echelons down to the dive bars and hidden underground elements of society, from criminal smugglers to secretive elite scientists and everything in between, Alice is going to get a first-hand view of the reality of the society on this orbiting citadel of humanity.

I’m not going to go too much into the murder investigation and where it leads, far too easy to blow some spoilers that way, but for anyone who has read Brookmyre’s crime novels, you’ll already know that you are in very fine hands here regarding a good murder mystery, with plenty of twists and turns. But as with his terrestrial novels, Brookmyre delights as much in the details and the way these details and the events around them can reveal human nature in all of its many facets, and that is compelling, from the highest, elite segments to the lowest, and the elements of life that connect them all, one way or the other.

It’s a story which also questions the nature of humanity, from Alice, brought up in a very different setting from the likes of Nikki, with her by the rules, idealised view of how it should all be, to Nikki, who has seen how much of it really works, the dirty, oily engine under the gleaming bonnet of the car, and then those in positions of power, from crime gangs to the corporate and scientific leadership, and what they want their orbiting society – and eventual starship colony crew – to be. And it questions if you can really make people into moulds or if human nature will always assert itself – and if that is a good or bad thing, while also, like much of science fiction, using that future society as a mirror to observe aspects of our own contemporary world, from the haves and have-nots, the corporations straining to be free of government oversight, the bulk of people waiting for the “trickle down” effect, the role of technology in society (for good and ill) and more. It’s a rich brew, giving a real feeling of a near-future society you can believe in, humanity in a warts and all way, allied to a compelling and twisting narrative of murder and conspiracy.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog


So after several days of worry for the local residents and a great boon to the rolling 24 hour news channels, Moat is apparently surrounded tonight with armed police all around him and apparently ‘negotiating’. He has his own gun to his head, he’s a psychopath who has shot three people and promised to attack more, blames the police and society for his own violent acts and they are ‘negotiating’? Funny, when they have the wrong, totally unarmed and innocent suspect the police seem able to shoot to kill multiple times, but a murderous, gun-toting, steroidal psychopath they’ve hunted for days who ends up surrounded and holding his own gun to his own head they ‘negotiate’ with? If he was a street protesting woman some large copper would have thumped her with a baton by now (secure in the knowledge he wouldn’t ever get into trouble for it), but a gun totin’ muderous creep they handle with kid gloves? Ours is a very odd law enforcement system. Meantime the rolling news channels are in an ecstasty – oh god, but how they love something like this that they can report on for hours live…

Breaking the law

So after more fibs from the government and assurances that their latest corruption scandal was a mistake by one party official that no-one else knew about, surprise, surprise it turns out that wasn’t the case, even after the Prime Eejit stood up and told everyone it was. Considering this is the same party who has blocked enquiries into how we were lead (and lied) into the Iraq war it can’t be a surprise to anyone that they hide other dodgy secrets and illegal activities behind misdirection and bare-faced lies. Tonight most news programmes were reporting that this is a criminal matter and as such should be referred to the police, but come on, who the hell thinks the Met will do much there after they so conveniently looked after the government’s interests in the cash-for-honours scandal (the senior officer’s appearance in front of a House committee afterwards was also less than convincing).

You know, if you were a suspicious, cynical person you might find it seems rather convenient that just after the Metropolitan police announced no prosecutions after a high profile, very expensive investigation into political corruption the beleaguered and incompetent Chief Constable got given backing from on high to let him ride out the furore over the findings in the Jean Charles de Menezes shooting. With such protection from senior ministers and the Prime Minister no wonder Ian Blair looked so smug and arrogant when he was in front of the committees, he was all but saying up yours, you can’t touch me. If, as I say, you were very suspicious you might think perhaps there is a secret link between the cash for honours investigation being dropped and Blair being protected by senior government officials, some shady quid pro quo. And if you thought that you might be even more cynical that any dodgy dealings in this new corruption scandal will be properly investigated, much less see all the people responsible actually charged. But of course, that’s just paranoid fantasy, isn’t it? Like someone making multiple illegal donations in the guise of different people, the very idea is mad… Oh, hold on…

And they wonder why so many people don’t even bother to vote or take part in the political process anymore after setting this kind of example… Still, it was great to see the look on Gordon Brown’s dour face when Cable compared the eejit to Mister Bean…

In the interests of honesty and transparency though, I will admit I have made multiple donations to the KLF (Kangaroo Liberation Front) under the names Hieronymoys H Monocle, Lord Freddie of Mercury, Muhammed the Bear, Lady Anastasia Appendix-Major and the Magnificent Montogue and his Performing Koalas. And absolutely no-one else knew of this. Unless someone finds out otherwise. Honest.