The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds
Published by Gollancz, April 2007
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
1. A high administrative official or chief officer, as:
a. Any of several high military or civil officials in ancient Rome.
b. The chief of police of Paris, France.
c. A chief administrative official of a department of France.
d. The administrator in charge of discipline at a Jesuit school.
2. A student monitor or officer, especially in a private school.
Alastair Reynolds’ latest is a space opera set in the early days of his Revelation Space universe. The story outline and concept is a fairly simple one, certainly compared with some of his earlier work. It is, in essence, a space-police-detective novel. Set in the year 2427 it follows Tom Dreyfus, a Prefect (see definition 1, above) who works for the law-enforcement agency of Panoply. His jurisdiction is the thousands of habitats above the planet of Yellowstone, referred to as the Glitter Band. The story starts quickly with Dreyfus and his team (made up of a young, intelligent and inexperienced new recruit called Thalia Ng and a uplifted-pig/human called Sparver) investigating what seems to be a fairly simple tale of habitat destruction: albeit one which costs over nine hundred and sixty lives.
The immediate culprit seems to be clear: the drive from a Delta spaceship, deliberately turned onto the habitat, causing a major rift in the habitat’s structure and instant decompression. It is rather expected that Dreyfus will have this case quickly sorted. However the simple solution soon becomes more complicated as the original main suspect may not be as guilty as it seemed at the start. Instead, the emergence of an alpha-intelligence from the galaxy’s past leads to secrets from the past being uncovered, the destruction of a number of habitats, difficult life-changing decisions and potentially bigger consequences – the subjugation of all humans and the destruction of the Glitter Band itself…
Though these are minor links to Reynolds’ earlier written stories, it is one that can be read as a stand-alone. There are brief mentions of aspects that earlier readers of Reynolds’ Revelation Space work may recognise - the Sylveste family, The Eighty, Sandra Voi, the Clockmaker crisis, the Conjoiners - however, you do not need to have read the earlier books to follow this one. In fact as this book is set before his earlier written books, it might therefore be a good place to start reading Reynolds. There are hints of later events here.
On balance I felt that this was a much more focused work than many of Reynolds’ earlier work. As I rather suspected on reading some of his recent short story collections, Reynolds is developing as a writer with each book he writes. Whilst other earlier books, written with a wealth of ideas on a broad canvas, failed to totally impress me with their characterisations, this story is focused on half a dozen key characters and written around a widescreen canvas worthy of a Peter F. Hamilton novel. Reynolds’s characterisation, previously something I’ve often found a weakness compared with the ‘big ideas,’ here was more pleasingly engaging.
The characters are a little predictable, though likeable: Dreyfus is an older, more experienced character with a dark history, whose world-weariness is offset by his need to be honourable and fulfil his duty. Thalia is the well-meaning, yet naïve new recruit, whose enthusiasm to do the job right is counterbalanced by her need to make good the mistakes of her father. Sparver is a member of the team who because of his background is distrusted by others in Panoply yet is endearingly loyal to Dreyfus. This creates a varied yet strong team who deserve to be written about more.
Of course a book of this length means that there is more to the book than the good guys. There are also interestingly written evolved humans, downloaded characters and bad guys with a rational raison d’être.
Also of interest is the role of the security force in such a complex living environment. Reynolds grippingly proposes that a security force whose actions are dependent on a society’s vote, as Panoply is, may not always be an effective one. Such democracy can stifle effective action. As events accelerate though this lengthy book, actions have to be taken that go against the ideas of the mass-run state. The security force is restricted in their actions at key points of the story as the need for public voting is accounted for.
Perhaps the part I liked most was the fact that the entertaining tale takes place in a broadly diverse environment. Reynolds’ world-building, or rather off-world-building, is most enjoyable here. Though concentrated on four main off-world habitats, the travelogue across the Glitter Band, from the Voluntary Tyranny States to the habitat of House Aubusson, (whose purpose is to constantly analyse habitat-dwellers responses for the government) is very appealing. What it really does, of course, is allow me as a reader to explore, and visit a broad variety of quite different environs.
There are also some nice humorous touches that can be found if you’d care to look. I was amused by the Klausner speed-reading index, for example. And anyone with a sense of fun (or at least knowledge of the Muppets) can’t miss the thought of ‘Pigs in Space’!
In summary, this is a lengthy novel, but one that I felt held my attention nicely. Reynolds’s humour and vision is very appealing, as well as strong characters in a broad setting, make this an enjoyable novel which shows Reynolds’s growth as a writer. Though good before, I think this is one of his best novels to date. I would quite like to visit there again.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, April 2007.
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