Review: The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds

The_Prefect

(Gollancz, 2007. ISBN 978-0-575-07818-5)

(Review first published on the ASIM website, August 2007)

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Alastair Reynolds is a British-born, Netherlands-based astrophysics researcher with the European Space Agency, and a hard-SF writer with a rapidly growing reputation. The Prefect is his tenth book since 2000, and occupies the same universe as Revelation Space and most of his other novels. So far as I can tell, however (this is the first book by Reynolds that I’ve read), it doesn’t feature characters common to the other works. This, I think, works in its favour: to my mind, hard-SF is not a genre that lends itself naturally to the exposition of closely-connected trilogies (or, more generally, oligologies, if there is such a word) where the reader follows the exploits of the same small band of characters. (Of course, hard-SF generally isn’t renowned for its strength of characterisation, but that’s a diatribe for another time, another place.)

Tom Dreyfus is a prefect, an operative of Panoply within the Glitter Band. It states within the book that prefects are not law enforcement officers as such, but the distinction is dubious: Dreyfus’ roles include investigation, interrogation and imprisonment, and the prefects’ primary duties appear to involve monitoring for legal compliance. The book opens with Dreyfus and his two deputies, Thalia and Sparver, placing an orbital habitat into lockdown while they investigate a suspected polling breach. (Vote crime is a serious issue in the Glitter Band, which is portrayed as a kind of participatory democracy on steroids, and the infraction is sufficiently serious that deaths occur before the prefects’ seemingly-routine business at the habitat is finished.)

From this beginning, events rapidly snowball: the House Perigal voting anomaly uncovers a loophole in the vote-harvesting software which requires patching, and a seemingly unrelated catastrophe – the annihilation of another habitat, Ruskin-Sartorius – threatens to initiate open conflict between the Glitter Band’s Demarchist society and the Ultras, denizens of the Kuiper Belt. If the situation were only that simple, then the prefects could just about cope with the developing situation, but it soon transpires that what they face is much more challenging …

Reynolds’ background in astrophysical research is apparent throughout. His world-building (universe-building, maybe?) is thorough and logically consistent, and permits a minimum of fictional falsifications of the true laws of nature. (As a physical chemist, I’m highly sceptical that some of his conceptual extrapolations – such as the suitwall, a pliable surface that wraps a fully-functional, instantly-tailored spacesuit around you as you step through it – could ever hope to be realised, but this is a minor quibble.)

The pacing of the plot is excellent – developments in the story are sufficiently convoluted that there are up to half-a-dozen separate story strands, each with a sustained sense of tension and urgency, being explored even before the book’s mid-section. I actually became concerned, towards the book’s final pages, that Reynolds wasn’t going to be able to pull it off – there’s nothing worse than a novel which doesn’t tie together the loose ends it’s been proffering for the past few hundred pages, and there are still new twists and distractions devolving in the book’s final pages – but it comes together, in a satisfying and plausible fashion, with just enough space for a coda.

Reynolds’ characterisation is also good, and the characters are generally believable. There’s something of a tendency towards characters being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but that’s not uncommon in crime fiction, and all of the villains of the piece can be seen to have clear reasons for behaving as they do. In fact, the motivations for all of the dozen or so principal participants are all logically consistent, and several of them are sufficiently engaging that it’s easy to invest an interest in following their fate. If Reynolds’ characters lack the quirky depth and duplicity of, say, Iain M. Banks’ Culture-series participants, they are nevertheless well-constructed and display a credible variety in background and outlook.

Is The Prefect a must-read? That, I presume, depends on your tastes in genre fiction. It’s a well-constructed amalgam of detective fiction, hard-SF and space opera, which I suppose invites comparison with works like Asimov’s The Naked Sun and The Caves of Steel. In fact, though, I found myself thinking more of Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge while I read this book: there’s a sense in both books of an author keen to demonstrate the diversity of settings and environments with which he has constructed his universe.

On balance, though, this showcasing is not too obtrusive in The Prefect, and the writing shares the clarity and sense of directness that’s found in the work of Asimov and, say, Larry Niven. It’s definitely worth checking out, if plausible and entertaining space-based future extrapolation is something that appeals to you. Obviously, it may make more sense to approach the Revelation Space series from its first book, rather than its most recent; but the series seems sufficiently ‘loose’ that I’m quite comfortable recommending The Prefect as an introduction to the writing of Alastair Reynolds.

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(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2007)

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