Places In the Darkness, Chris Brookmyre; What’s Next, Jim Al-Khalili

Body parts in zero-gravity lead detectives to even more grisly finds

We’re looking to the future in this column with two very different books – a novel and a book of essays – that both examine scientific and ethical developments that will challenge us in the years to come.

First up is Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre. The Scottish author is of course best known for his crime fiction, but here he’s branched out a little into science fiction. Brookmyre has dabbled in the genre a couple of times before, one book even being turned into an accompanying video game, but Places in the Darkness feels like he has fully immersed himself in the possibilities of the genre this time round.

The action (and there is plenty of action) is set on Ciudad de Cielo, a space station orbiting Earth in the near future, a kind of staging post between what we now have with the International Space Station and a full-blown colony ship that could travel to the stars.

This is a terrifically engaging story from start to nerve-shredding finish

The so-called ‘city in the sky’ is home to thousands of scientists, engineers and others, a self-contained mini-community with all the pros and cons of such a set-up. While plenty of serious scientific work is being carried out, there is also a large amount of illicit trade in contraband, prostitution and extortion, the activities of rival gangs being largely ignored by the powers that be. Until, that is, a mess of eviscerated body parts is found floating in zero-gravity in the centre of the space station.

What follows is a classic high-octane odd-couple police investigation, as compromised and streetwise police officer Nikki Freeman is paired with straight-laced government investigator Alice Blake to solve the crime. Inevitably, what they uncover is not as straightforward as just murder, with
conspiracy and corruption rife across the space station and beyond.

Brookmyre has a whole heap of fun with his world building – the microcosm of society on the station is tremendously realised, with the author’s trademark irreverent sense of humour playing through everything. And the action stuff is impeccably orchestrated too, with each chapter from one of the two investigators ratcheting up the tension superbly to a properly thrilling climax.

But even more than that, Places in the Darkness does what all good sci-fi does, it makes you ask the big questions. Without giving too much of the plot away, scientific developments on the station lead to big questions about genetic manipulation, identity, memory and even the very ideas of self and consciousness. As smart as it is gripping, this is a terrifically engaging story from start to nerve-shredding finish.

Our second book to look to the future is What’s Next edited by Jim Al-Khalili. Last year I reviewed his book Aliens, which brought together essays by leading scientists on the possibility of -extraterrestrial life, and this book follows a similar template, this time looking at all aspects of human life going forward.

Al-Khalili offers a fascinating glimpse into all our potential futures

We have world experts in their respective fields writing about everything from climate change and genetic -engineering to artificial intelligence and quantum -computing. The final section of the book even looks far into the future and examines the possible scientific basis for interstellar exploration, teleportation and time travel. Though written by hugely smart people, the tone throughout is accessible and fun, making this an utterly fascinating glimpse into all our potential futures.

Places in the Darkness, Chris Brookmyre (Orbit, £12.99) out now
What’s Next, Edited by Jim Al-Khalili (Profile, £8.99) out now