Saturday, 10 March 2007

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds

It is the year 2427. The place is the Glitter Band, ten thousand space habitats circling the planet Yellowstone, the golden heart of human space where a multitude of different cultures meet and trade, and a waystop for huge lighthuggers as they slowly traverse the distances between the stars at speeds just below that of light. This is the universe of Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds' critically-acclaimed gothic space opera which has now extended across five novels, two novellas and a short story collection. The Prefect is a stand-alone addition to this excellently-realised future history, taking place approximately a century before the events of Chasm City and Revelation Space itself.

Whilst the planet Yellowstone and its biggest settlement, Chasm City, deal with their own affairs, it falls to the prefects of Panoply to police the vast Glitter Band and its 100 million citizens, who practice the ultimate form of democracy, Demarchism. Every minute dozens of decisions, large and small, are put to the public vote and the people of the Glitter Band spend much of their time engrossed in politics, employing a form of VR known as Abstraction to talk to one another, or choosing to lose themselves in fantastical reflections of the real world. The greatest crime in the Glitter Band is an attempt to deny the will of the people. Voting fraud is a heinous perversion, one which the prefects exist to prevent at all costs.

An apparently routine case of voting fraud leads Tom Dreyfus and his team into a labyrinthe web of plots and conspiracies that threatens to destroy their very way of life. And, as this is a mystery novel, to say any more of the plot would threaten to indulge in spoilers. Suffice to say that the links between The Prefect and the other Revelation Space novels are subtle and numerous. The Prefect in fact occupies a position within its larger series framework similar to the position Steven Erikson's novel Midnight Tides occupies in his Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence: generally a standalone novel, but with equal arguments in favour of reading the book before the others (events in the other novels are clarified by information provided in The Prefect) or afterwards (when the reader understands exactly what will become of this society in the future).

Reynolds is on good form here, although arguably he fails to recapture the immediacy of his finest work, Chasm City. The Prefect is a somewhat more straightforward novel. Although there are several startling, late revelations and plot twists, the reader is in possession of most of the facts reasonably early in the book. Tom Dreyfus also remains a somewhat less complex protagonist then regular Reynolds readers may be used to, but as usual the author has a few aces up his sleeve which force the reader to reassess the character during the novel's conclusion.

In The Prefect Alastair Reynolds executes an enjoyable and extremely fast-paced return to the universe that made his name. The story develops nicely and explodes into a furious page-turning pace in its second half that barely lets up. At the same time Reynolds' ability to conjure up vivid imagery remains intact (one plotline is not for the squeamish or for anyone with a fear of knives), as does his assured grasp of his universe and the remarkable cultures and ideas that make it up. The book is not without its flaws - in particular, those who have already read Absolution Gap and know of Reynolds' fondness for ambiguous endings may be better-prepared for the conclusion than others - and there is perhaps a feeling that we are being set up for a sequel at the end, but these are fairly minor concerns. The Prefect is Reynolds' best novel since at least Redemption Ark, and is an engrossing read.

The Prefect (****) will be published by Gollancz in the United Kingdom in hardcover on 2 April 2007. The author has a website at this location.


SuperwebG said...

Hmm... looking forward to this, though I'm not sure that Chasm City was my favourite by Reynolds. Good luck with the reviewing!

M. said...

I keep putting off this series due to its perceived difficulty. From how you're describing it, it sounds like The Prefect might be more accessible, and maybe a better place to start with this universe.

Adam Whitehead said...

I'd go along with that. Revelation Space did feel a little more challenging to start with, whilst The Prefect is more straightforward. I'd suggesting the order The Prefect-Chasm City-Diamond Dogs, Turqoise Days (the novella collection)-Revelation Space-Redemption Ark-Absolution Gap. I haven't read Galactic North (the short story collection) yet.