Alastair Reynolds: The Prefect

Review of the novel The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds.

  • The Prefect

    • by Alastair Reynolds
    • HC, © 2007, 412 pp, Gollancz (U.K.), ISBN 0-575-07716-6

I realized while reading this book something that sets Reynolds apart from his high-tech brethren in the SF field: Reynolds’ stories are essentially grim suspense/horror tales, and their basic pattern is one of setting up a milieu and hinting at a variety of outre people, places, events, or other horrors which populate it, and then setting the story in motion. Consequently, the reader spends much of his time waiting for another shoe to drop, and in true Charles Addams fashion, Reynolds’ stories are full of more shoes than you expect. And since he tends to “play fair” with the reader, not pulling out some unlikely surprise at the last minute for sheer shock value, you know that the characters have a chance of getting through the novel, but they’re probably going to have to walk through hell to get there.

The Prefect is a prequel to the Revelation Space cycle of stories, occurring decades (maybe a couple of centuries) before the events which turned the planet of Yellowstone into the peculiar hell it was in those novels. Here, the Glitter Band is a ring of ten thousand space habitats orbiting Yellowstone, and Panoply is its law-enforcement branch, primarily tasked with guarding it from external threats to its existence (due to its uneasy symbiosis with the starfaring Ultras), and internal threats to its stability (people trying to subvert its democratic electoral system).

Tom Dreyfus is Panoply’s top Field Prefect, an exacting but fair and honest man who works some of the toughest jobs in the system. Eleven years ago, an AI named the Clockmaker threatened the survival of the Glitter Band. It was defeated, but Dreyfus’ wife died in the encounter, and he’s now fully committed to his job. His two partners have similar obstacles: Thalia Ng is the daughter of a man who was convicted of treason, while Sparver is a genetically-engineered pig, and thus the subject of much discrimination.

The book opens with Dreyfus’ team locking down a station which had illegally exploited a hole in the polling software, which Thalia is assigned to fix. While she is working on the fix, space station Ruskin-Sartorius is destroyed, and Dreyfus’ investigation suggests that an Ultra ship is to blame. The Ultras provide little insight into what happened, and Dreyfus’ only witnesses are three simulations of three members of the family from the station. With a little legwork, they track down communications with Ruskin-Sartorius to a remote asteroid and Dreyfus and Sparver go to check it out while Thalia goes to test her software fix on a few of the older stations.

All of this is the initial dance leading up to a powerful entity making a bid to take over the Glitter Band, and this is where Reynolds really exercises his suspense skills: Thalia gives us a short tour of the diversity of the stations in the Glitter Band while Dreyfus and Sparver engage in some forensic investigation. There’s no question that something big is around the corner, but the story still keeps moving forward even as the tension builds. The story is a series of puzzles for Dreyfus and the other characters, as they need to figure out the goals and motivations of their adversary, as well as how to stop it as it makes its move on the stations in the Glitter Band.

The characters in The Prefect aren’t the strongest in Reynolds’ arsenal, and they definitely take a back seat to the plot. While Dreyfus and Thalia each have some painful history behind them, it’s only an influence on their behavior, not a strong underlying motivation. Dreyfus, as the title character, embodies the best of Panoply, its efficiency and compassion, and is forced to weather the storm of his less-incorruptible peers and superiors, but he never feels truly flawed, and so he fills the role of a fairly traditional detective. Still, the main characters are all entirely likeable and that helps make the book enjoyable.

For those who have read Reynolds’ earlier books, there’s irony in that we know that Dreyfus’ efforts to save the Glitter Band will eventually be undone by the Melding Plague, but we still root for him to save this jewel of human civilization. The story comes to a surprisingly rapid – yet satisfying – conclusion, and I wouldn’t mind reading more about the era of the Glitter Band, but ultimately I think I enjoy the more downbeat era after the Melding Plague more. Perhaps there’s a story which can bridge the two periods.

The Prefect falls somewhere in the middle of quality among Reynolds’ books, being a solid detective story with a variety of interesting ideas backing it, but it doesn’t excel in either concepts or characters like Chasm City or Pushing Ice do. But if you’re just looking for an exciting high-tech tale, then look no further.

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