The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds
The Prefect is the fifth Alastair Reynolds book I’ve read in his REVELATION SPACE series, though it is a stand-alone and set earlier in chronology than the other books. By the time of the main trilogy Revelation Space (2000), Redemption Ark (2002), and Absolution Gap (2003), the Glitter Band of 10,000 orbitals has already been destroyed by the corrosive Melding Plague, so we see only its wrecked aftermath. With such tantalizing hints, it is only natural that readers would want to see more of the Glitter Band in its heyday, running the gamut of utopian, democratic, autocratic, escapist, and decadent societies.
Fortunately, Reynolds explores this promising setting with a dark, complex, and compelling detective story filled with determined prefects (futuristic detectives), sinister AIs, post-human ultras, scheming factions, betrayals, revelations, tons of high-tech gadgets and tense action. It is an endless playground for a skilled SF writer with a rich imagination, much like Iain M. Banks in his CULTURE novels. The Prefect (2007) is a surprisingly satisfying mix of hard SF, police procedural, and space opera, all done in Reynolds‘ dense and claustrophobic style. After Chasm City (2001), I’d say it’s his best book set in the REVELATION SPACE universe.
The story begins with prefect Tom Dreyfus investigating some polling violations, because this 10,000 orbital society is linked mainly by a network of polling stations that allows all the citizens to make decisions for the otherwise loosely-linked societies. Prefects are a group of specialized police that make sure the system is not tampered with and that all citizens have access to abstraction, an advanced form of virtual reality and access to the information shared among the 100-million plus members of the Glitter Band. Imagine a direct democracy in which technology allows all members to vote on a real-time basis on all decisions that affect them, without interfering with their daily lives. It’s an often-contemplated utopian ideal, and Reynolds explores the implications in a far-future context which lends it more plausibility.
Once Dreyfus moves to the next assignment to investigate the destruction of an entire habitat called Ruskin-Sartorius, which seems to have been sliced open by a Conjoiner drive, he quickly recognizes this is not a typical crime. In classic detective tradition, the deeper he delves into the details of the case, the stranger and more sinister the clues he unearths, always pointing to mysterious artificial intelligences that seem to be intent on either controlling or destroying the Glitter Band. What I found impressive was just how convoluted the plot became, with multiple nefarious AIs manipulating events for their own purposes, and the various humans who align themselves in an intricate web of intrigue. It takes a lot of concentration to keep track of all the moving pieces, but Reynolds ties together these threads satisfactorily, and places the events in the larger context of the REVELATION SPACE universe.
Overall, I appreciate the details of Reynolds’ universe more after having read five books set in it, and while I stand by my complaints about the excessive page count and glacial pace of the main three books in the trilogy (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap), I do see that he has taken care to build this world carefully and likely wants to hold back some revelations for future stories. He also has set some shorter stories in this universe which fill in gaps in the larger future-history narrative, including Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days and Galactic North.
As always, John Lee narrates Reynolds‘ stories with gravitas, vaguely European-tinged accents, and a sense of drama and claustrophobic tension. I think some listeners will like his narration for that reason, while others may find it a bit tiresome. But you can’t fault Reynolds and Lee teaming up for a consistent approach — nothing is worse than having the narrator change mid-series.