Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Back to the Glitter Band

Another posting, another science fiction novel. The Prefect is a further Alastair Reynolds novel, again set within his Revelation Space universe, albeit at an earlier point in its history. While the last of his novels that I reviewed, Chasm City, took place against the backdrop of a ruined Glitter Band, Reynolds' The Prefect takes place at an earlier time when the Band is still fully operational. For reference, the Glitter Band is an orbital ring of 10,000 separate habitats (space stations) around the planet Yellowstone.

The eponymous Prefect is Tom Dreyfus, a senior operative working for the Glitter Band organisation known as Panoply. Working in large part to coordinate the complicated democracy of the Glitter Band, Panoply is the closest it has to a police force, although security is only an occasional task for Panoply and its remit prevents it from acting against the often perverse internal activities of Glitter Band habitats. The novel opens with Dreyfus investigating two seemingly unrelated crimes, the first an infringement of Glitter Band democracy, the second the destruction of one of the Band's habitats. Both first appear as open and shut cases, but the latter lacks a credible motive, a fact that Dreyfus latches onto and doggedly pursues. While his investigations gradually uncover deeper machinations, the conspiracy that links the two crimes is accelerated, and powerful forces are unleashed into the Glitter Band. Faced with an overwhelming enemy, and hampered by both the restrictions placed on Panoply and a mole operating within it, Dreyfus is forced to revisit the events surrounding an earlier Panoply debacle, and to the realisation of his involvement in it. There he finds a dark secret from history, a key into his own past and an unlikely ally in the fight to save the Glitter Band.

Similarly to Chasm City, The Prefect makes good use of settings and events that are only alluded to in other Revelation Space novels. Also similarly, The Prefect is an isolated one-off novel with a fresh cast, and so avoids the flaws of the main sequence of his Revelation Space series. Structurally, the novels have less in common: The Prefect is more conventional than the time-split narrative of Chasm City, and instead has a simple, forward time-stream broken into a small number of strands that follow major characters.

By its setting at a much earlier point in the history of Revelation Space, The Prefect allows us to see the Glitter Band at its highest point, completely free of the Melding Plague that would later engulf it. Reynolds writes the Glitter Band as a democratic but anarchic mixture of societies, one that includes habitats where occupants can volunteer to be enslaved or fatally hunted. That such places exist in the Glitter Band allows Reynolds to explore just how far democracy can and should go, while also providing one of his antagonists with a defensible motive for the "sensible" actions that he takes.

The setting also allows Reynolds to have some fun with technologies that the Melding Plague would later render extinct because of their dangerous limitations. The most obvious of these is so-called Quickmatter, a nanotech material that can quasi-intelligently organise and repair itself, and from which even clothing is made. Reynolds also directly tackles his Alpha- and Beta-level simulations of people by featuring three as major characters. That Tom Dreyfus is, at least initially, sceptical of the sentience of Beta-levels allows some digression into this aspect of Glitter Band technology.

Overall, another worthy addition to Reynolds' canon. Both entertaining in its own right and, much like Chasm City, fitting in nicely with the rest of Revelation Space.

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