Book review: Elysium Fire, by Alastair Reynolds

4 02 2018

Alastair Reynolds is a British SF writer and former ESA space scientist, who has won BSFA, Locus, and Sidewise Awards for his work, as well as nominations for several other awards. He specialises in hard SF and is most widely known for his ‘Revelation Space’ novel sequence, though he has also written novels set in the Doctor Who universe as well as a space-opera riff on Treasure Island. I’ve previously reviewed several novels and standalone novellas by Reynolds.

ElysiumFire

Elysium Fire, Reynolds’ most recent release, is a direct sequel to his SF/mystery novel The Prefect (itself recently retconned as Aurora Rising, though still listed in Reynolds’ bibliography in this latest book under its own name). Like its predecessor, Elysium Fire is set within the ‘glitter band’ of large (and largely autonomous) habitats in orbit around the planet of Yellowstone, with a distributed population of some hundred million citizens who are effectively self-governing through implant-polled acts of participatory democracy. It’s a system which, thanks to the implants, is generally both effective and unobtrusive, but occasional flaws in hardware, software, or human behaviour require the attention of the Glitter Band’s approximation to government, Panoply, an organisation dedicated to ensuring that problems between citizens or between habitats are quenched before they can cascade out of control. Panoply’s agents are its Prefects: effectively, police with substantial discretionary powers and the ability to call on reserves of devastatingly powerful weaponry. Prefect Tom Dreyfus (note that the draft cover depicted above misspells his name; it’s correctly spelled on my paperback copy) is one of the principal viewpoint characters in Elysium Fire, as was the case in the earlier book, alongside his erstwhile deputies Sparver Bancal (a hyperpig, with human-level intelligence constrained within a relatively short-lived porcine frame) and Thalia Ng, now themselves promoted to full Prefect status. The problem with which they must contend, this time around, is Wildfire, a cascade of ostensibly-spontaneous implant thermal regulation failures which is, in effect, cooking the brains of its victims. With no information as to the cause or the origin of the steadily-worsening Wildfire outbreak, which seems to strike at random across the entire Glitter Band, the forces of Panoply are stretched merely striving to contain the problem, let alone to solve it. Yet if they don’t solve it, the Glitter Band may be only months away from total social collapse …

It’s been around a decade since I read The Prefect, so my recollection of the earlier book is rather rusty. Happily, while Elysium Fire clearly depends in some respects on its predecessor, it’s constructed with sufficient care that it functions well enough as a self-contained standalone. (I’d nonetheless still recommend reading the earlier book first, if only because the second book does of necessity include some spoilers for the earlier work.) It’s a solid and rather densely-framed mystery with impeccable SF worldbuilding, as would be expected of Reynolds. Also as would be expected, the characterisation is interesting, detailed, and reasonably varied, although I did think a little too much was made at times of the dedication of the principal characters. Reynolds is also very good with tension, action, and misdirection, all of which feature in large measure here.

I’m firming on the opinion that the Dreyfus novels are Reynolds’ closest approach to the Culture sequence of Iain M Banks, which means, I think, that I hope we see more of them.

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