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.


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.


Book review: Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

29 08 2017

Alastair Reynolds is a British SF author best known for his ‘Revelation Space’ novel sequence, although by now he has many other strings to his bow. His work is known for its generally faithful adherence to hard-SF principles while often managing, also, to incorporate elements of space opera.


One of the reasonably widely accepted positions on the tropes of SF is that space piracy, as a concept, makes no sense, either logistically, physically, or economically. Revenger is a hard-SF novel, with strong YA undertones, about space pirates.

Arafura (‘Fura’) Ness is persuaded by her older sister Adrana to sign up for a six-month stint as ‘bone reader’ (in essence, a scryer of information gleaned from the technologically-augmented skulls of long-dead aliens; a task that can only be performed by those with the right combination of neural plasticity and cognition—which means, in practice, teenagers) on board Captain Rackamore’s sunjammer Monetta’s Mourn. Rackamore is a pirate, of sorts, but his primary interest is in plunder, not violence; and with fifty million formerly-occupied habitats, most of them sealed and left derelict, in orbit around the Old Sun, there’s opportunity aplenty for treasure-seekers trying to find tech relics of the Solar System’s many vanished civilisations. But Rackamore also has unfinished business with the infamous Bosa Sennen, whose Nightjammer is a watchword for terror, out in the Big Empty; and when Monetta’s Mourn comes off second best in an encounter with Sennen’s ship, Fura finds that she, too, has unfinished business with Bosa Sennen …

Revenger takes on the style of the pirate yarn whole-heartedly, from the stereotypically motley crews of misfits and ne’er-do-wells to the instantly-recognisable speech patterns and superstitions, and bolts these attributes onto a hard-SF framework that treats issues of intrasystem ballistics and momentum conservation with deadly seriousness. It’s a combination that could well seem ludicrous, and yet it works well, helped considerably by a tense and taut storyline that never really lets up and by characterisation that imbues Fura and those around her with complexity and pathos. If it’s not Reynolds’ most memorable achievement, it is, nonetheless, undeniably, a lot of fun.

Book review: Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds

10 08 2017

Alastair Reynolds is a Brish SF writer whose work, characterised most powerfully by the ‘Revelation Space’ sequence of novels, has been at the forefront of space-based SF for the past couple of decades. I’ve reviewed quite a bit of Reynolds’ work over the years.


Slow Bullets sees war veteran Scur awaken unexpectedly, alongside many of her fellow combatants from both sides of the conflict, on the Caprice, a transport ship in orbit around an unidentified planet. She quickly learns that the ship, designed for interstellar travel via hyperspace jumps, is only partially functional; she also learns that, of the approximately one thousand people that had been in hibernation aboard the vessel, a couple of hundred have not successfully emerged from the long sleep. However, the most pressing need is to ensure that active conflict between the two ‘sides’ does not break out onboard, and with the not-entirely-willing assistance of timid but pragmatic crewmember Prad (gunpoint can make for a highly effective shortcut during negotiations) she’s able to restore something approaching calm and civil order amongst the Caprice‘s confused occupants. The next step is to figure out where they are, and to determine how best to re-establish contact with civilisation …

Slow Bullets packs a lot into its novella-sized frame. The backstory (setting the scene for the conflict among the hundred inhabited worlds) is dealt with briefly, and there’s quite a lot of other territory covered as life aboard the Caprice shifts unsteadily from survival to sophistication. Although the characterisation is effective enough, it’s very much a story cast in the classic SF mould, in which the idea is paramount; the titular concept of the ‘slow bullet’ is, in essence, an injectable data-storage implant routinely emplaced in military personnel, for the dual purposes of tracking and identification. The spin which Reynolds places on this device is quite ingenious. The story manages, also, to riff off some of the concepts in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, as well as picking apart—powerfully, but without bombast—the propensity for religious observance to both unify and divide. It is, in short, one of the most effective and rewarding pieces of writing I’ve seen from Reynolds, and would make an excellent introduction to his work.


Book review: The Iron Tactician, by Alastair Reynolds

23 06 2017

Alastair Reynolds is a British SF author and former ESA space scientist most strongly associated with the ‘Revelation Space’ novel sequence, though he has also written many other well-regarded hard SF and space opera novels. I’ve reviewed several of his books; you can find those reviews on my review list here.


The Iron Tactician is the most recent novella in Reynolds’ slowly-unfolding ‘Merlin’ sequence: earlier stories in this sequence are ‘Merlin’s Gun’, ‘Hideaway’, and ‘Minla’s Flowers’, though the internal chronology of the story sequence differs from the order in which they were written. In the Merlin universe, FTL travel is not feasible, but travel at velocities marginally slower than lightspeed is accessible via the Waynet, a magical-physics network of interstellar routes established by some long-vanished alien race and still not properly understood by humanity. The backdrop to the stories is a slow-unfolding war between humanity and the Huskers; solo space-traveller Merlin’s home planet is one of those laid waste in this war.

In Tactician, Merlin discovers a derelict swallowship, scuttled in a Husker attack several centuries past. The ship is dead, but there’s one survivor—Teal—who has occupied the ship’s sole still-functioning coldsleep berth in the centuries since the attack. Merlin, who’s searching for a piece of alien tech—a ‘syrinx’, a device facilitating access to the Waynet—to replace his own ship’s damaged component, bargains with Teal to find the syrinx that the derelict swallowhip had been carrying. The device had been traded, centuries previously, to a technologically-backward human civilisation, Havergal, occupying one half of a binary star system and engaged in a long-running fusion-weapons war with Gaffurius, the occupants of the system’s other half. So Merlin and Teal travel to the Havergal / Gaffurius system to seek to reclaim the syrinx by fair means or foul.

It’s difficult to write widescreen space opera, with all the interstellar intrigue, exaggerated highborn characters and stunning star-spanning vistas that the genre requires, in a compact form; even more difficult, I suspect, when one strives also to adhere to (most of) the strictures of hard SF with its intrinsic respect for the laws of physics. But Reynolds has form in this area, as the previous ‘Merlin’ stories (among others) can attest, and he acquits himself pretty well here. I’d still class ‘Minla’s Flowers’ as the high watermark of this sequence: in Tactician, there’s a sense of a little too much plot having been shoehorned in, a little too much convenient coincidence among the set of central characters, a little too much tendency to bombast in the story’s climactic sequence. But it’s possible, also, while cavilling at these perceived imperfections, to admire the clockwork elegance of the novella’s interconnecting components, and while the story hardly shows off protagonist Merlin to his best advantage, the characterisation of Teal, in particular, is a worthwhile creation displaying intriguing depth. I hope we get to see further instalments in this sequence.