Chris Brookmyre: 'The more we immerse ourselves in advanced technology, the more we crave visceral human experience'

No 95 – Chris Brookmyre

credit: Paul Reich

Scottish crime-writing giant Chris Brookmyre discusses his new novel, Places in the Darkness, where a murder takes place in space

Places in the Darkness takes crime fiction into space. Eighty years after the Ciudad De Cielo ('the city in the sky') was established, it experiences its first homicide. Jaded former LAPD detective Nikki Freeman is tasked with finding the killer, under the watchful eye of uptight government worker Dr Alice Blake, who has just arrived from Earth. Chris Brookmyre's latest is gripping, exploring the frightening possibilities of advanced technology and set among the CdC's seedy underbelly of base human desires and police corruption, as its author explains.

Why did you decide to set a crime novel in space?
I was intrigued by the idea of somewhere that is advanced and aspirational and yet a place permanently on the edge of existence. People are at all times only metres or even centimetres away from instant death in the cold vacuum of space. I also liked the idea of being able to create my own city with its own history, its own subcultures and its own rules. Nobody can tell me my police procedural details are wrong if I have created my own police force.

Places in the Darkness has a very vivid opener. Did you already have that image in mind when you started the book?
It's a trope of crime fiction to begin with the discovery of a body, so when I came to write this, I thought about how the possibilities of a space station might allow me to twist that convention. I thought about the implications of a crime scene in microgravity – where the body would not just be lying in place – then realised I could take it much further. Also, in writing about hyper-advanced technology and an aspirational civilisation, I wanted to show the ways in which everything can still be reduced to human desires and human weakness, literally broken down to flesh and blood.

What books or films inspired you in creating this futuristic world on the Ciudad de Cielo?
I actually set out to create a space station environment that was deliberately unlike any I was familiar with from films. I had read a lot about early space exploration, including several memoirs by astronauts, which made me think about the logistical and practical considerations of life in space. So many problems arose from the absence of gravity, which is why CdC comprises two giant wheels creating artificial gravity environments. However, if there is one movie that I have a debt to for this book, it is The Big Easy. As the book is about police corruption, the relationship between Dennis Quaid's Remy McSwain and Ellen Barkin's Anne Osborn was the inspiration for the relationship in Places in the Darkness between Nikki "Fixx" Freeman and Alice Blake.

There are no Scottish characters in this book, but there is a lot of Scotch whisky. Why was that so important to the story?
It is a book about the Caveman Principle: how the more we immerse ourselves in a world of advanced technology (and in this case the further we get from Earth), the more we crave visceral human experience. Hence CdC has a massive underground economy of sex, nightclubs, fight clubs and bootleg booze, especially single malts. The likes of Glenfarclas and Glenfiddich are particularly prized on CdC because they have both a history and a geography that connect them to the Earth.

No 95 – Chris Brookmyre

image: Chris Brookmyre at Bloody Scotland / credit: Eoin Carey

How would you describe the CdC?
What makes CdC seem real in my mind is that it is a place of constant contradictions. It represents something futuristic, but by the time the action opens, it has been up there for eighty years, and while it is a place where bleeding-edge technology is constantly being invented, people arriving from Earth will find that a lot of the infrastructure and facilities seem very old. To us it would be like going up to the International Space Station and finding that much of the décor and fixtures were from the 1950s. It is a place that attracts ambitious people and brilliant minds, but it is also a place where damaged individuals go in order to escape lives on Earth that they would rather forget.

Do you have a favourite narrative set in space?
I am a massive Firefly geek. One of the things I love about it is that it is a SF vision in which there are no aliens, no teleportation and (almost) no laser guns. It brings forth the realisation that there might be nothing else out there, so we'd better make the best of what we have and what we are. I also like the aesthetic of a setting that is futuristic and yet at the same time, everything seems old and past its best.

The book has a lot of strong female roles and the two main characters in the book, Nikki Freeman and Alice Blake, are both women. Do you think there is a feminist slant to your approach?
I am a huge fan of Shane Black, and I wanted to write a female equivalent of the buddy cop thriller. In a book that might otherwise seem pessimistic in showing how some human weaknesses never change, I wanted to be optimistic in depicting a future where there are no longer traditional gender-delineated roles. I don't feel it's for me to label my own work as feminist. I think it is for women to tell me if they think it is.

The technology in the book in far more advanced than our own. Did you have to do a lot of research or did the jump allow you free reign to be as creative as you wanted?
I tried to be disciplined about the possibilities of future technology, and not just invent things for the purposes of plot convenience or sheer spectacle. I imagined how our own technology might have evolved over the ensuing centuries: hence smart phones and communications systems have become lenses permanently overlaying data. However, the most important innovation in the book is optogenetic meshes: a theoretically possible technology that is based on scientific research that has already been carried out on mice, imprinting new memories directly into the brain. The mesh allows for new knowledge to be instantly known, but opens the door for an individual's memory to be effectively edited by someone else, which is an idea with terrifying implications.

Places in the Darkness is published by Orbit, Thu 9 Nov, and launched in association with Blackwell, Edinburgh, Wed 8 Nov and Waterstones, Glasgow, Thu 9 Nov.

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Chris Brookmyre

Brookmyre discusses his newest book Places in the Darkness, a crime novel set in space. Christopher Brookmyre is the author of novels starring investigate journalist Jack Parlabane, counterterrorism officer Angelique de Xavia and crime duo Jasmine Sharp and Catherine McLeod, a private detective and a police…

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