Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Prefect - Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect is Alastair Reynolds' most recent novel in the Revelation Space setting. Apart from the novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days and a short story that hasn't been included in a collection yet, I've read all the earlier material in this stetting. To read The Prefect that is not required however. Reynolds has hinted that he will follow up on this novel but it works just fine as a standalone. Chronologically it is the first of the novels (there are some shorter pieces that are set before this novel) so it is not going to spoil any of the other books for you. The best reading order for the Revelation Space novels is something that is quite as straightforward as it might seem however. You can read this one at any time but my personal opinion is that is probably best to read it last. I'm going to have to write a separate post on this topic sometime.

In 2427 the Demarchist societies around Yellowstone are right in the middle of their Belle Epoque. Yellowstone itself is sparsely populated but in orbit around the planet are over ten thousand habitats ruled by the strangest social experiments you can think of. The only constriction is that the inhabitants must be allowed to cast their votes. In the democratic-anarchistic system every issue is decided with a vote. Something that would take so much time that a lot of people have delegated this task so special software able to predict their vote and cast it for them. To ensure the voting process is not tampered with, a system wide police force known as the Panoply is tasked with overseeing the process and bring those who illegally influence the vote to justice.

Tom Dreyfus is one of the best Field Prefects the Panoply employs. At the opening of the book he is engaged in what seems to be a routine lock down. One of the habitats has exploited a flaw in the voting software to swing votes and now suffers the consequences. Soon after his return from the habitat a major crises unfolds. The Ruskin-Sartorious Bubble has been destroyed, killing all 960 inhabitants. Again this seems a straightforward case. All forensic evidence point in the direction of an interstellar spaceship belonging to the Ultra faction. The relationship between the Demarchists and the Ultras have been tense lately, it may look straightforward but it is still a delicate matter. Soon Dreyfus uncovers a number of inconvenient clues. The matter may be more complicated than he first suspected.

At first glance Dreyfus is not a very original character. From the synopsis on the back cover you may think The Prefect Inspector Morse in space. A moody, ageing cop without much of a personal life fighting a number of personal demons and trying to hold long enough to solve this one case. He even has a trusted sidekick that knows when to ignore orders. In some ways John Thaw would make a fine Tom Dreyfus. The whole book is clearly influenced by some of the darker crime novels. Reynolds plays by the rules and provides the reader with all the clues to solve the riddle. You need to be a lot smarter than I am to actually see it coming though, the plot is complicated and has more than a few twists. If anything this novel shows that originality readers (and reviewers) are constantly looking for is overrated. The same stories get told again and again, it's the way you do it that really counts. And that is where Reynolds scores full points for this novel.

This novel is the first detailed look at the Demarchist Belle Epoque. The other novels are all set after the Melding Plague struck and changed the Glitter Band into the Rust Belt, an event that may not have been quite as much of a surprise as we previously thought. In 2427 the Demarchist society is still in full swing and after seeing it as a ruin, I very much enjoyed this perspective. Although Reynolds does not go out of his way to show us the individual societies the Glitter Band is composed of, we do come across a number of strange social experiments. There is the Persistent Vegetative State (which is exactly what you think it is), a state almost entirely dedicated to the voting process and several voluntary tyrannies (that one only sounds like fun to me if you get to be the tyrant). Just about everything a human could desire is possible given the advanced technologies available to the Demarchists. Inside the habitats just about anything goes. By contrasts the actions of the Panoply are closely monitored and subject to severe restrictions and miles of red tape. It gives the reader a feeling of a decadent society, very much turned in on itself.

That is not to say the politics in this book are tame however. Technology has created a number of monsters in the past and Yellowstone is far from done with this legacy. In Revelation Space we are introduced to the story of the Eighty and in The Prefect it turns out to be an important plot element. Reynolds' books are set in a high-tech environment but his is not afraid to show the downsides or horrors this technology can turn into. Some profoundly unethical applications are on display in this novel, giving the book a very dark atmosphere. It's not quite as heavy on the exotic physics as the earlier Revelation Space novels, making it a bit more accessible to those who prefer to avoid the hard science fiction parts of his novels.

When compared to his earlier books, Revelation Space in particular, Reynolds has grown a lot as a writer. This book is better written and more tightly plotted than anything else I've read by him. It is the perfect mix between hard science fiction, space opera and mystery. Depending on whether you like crime novels this book may be the best of the series. I haven't quite made up my mind about it but it certainly gives Chasm City a run for it's money. I ordered a copy of Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days last night, the last bit of Revelation Space I have yet to read. I hope to fit that in sometime next month. After that I'm going to have a look at some of the novels in other settings. Reynolds got me hooked. Go read one of his books!

Book Details
Title: The Prefect
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 502
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08218-2
First published: 2007

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