The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2007, £14.99
reviewed in Interzone 211, July August 2007

A surprising amount of hard sf is essentially structured as a mystery: something has disturbed the familiar ordering of the universe and in the course of the novel we are presented with a series of questions and answers that eventually build into the answer to the central puzzle. It makes sense, therefore, to use the machinery of the crime story to tell us about the hard sf mystery, which is exactly what Alastair Reynolds has done in his latest venture into the universe he first visited in Revelation Space. There is a murder, there is a policeman who doggedly investigates despite the obstructions of his superiors, there is the patient working out of means and motive, there is the way that one set of investigations uncovers a bigger threat, there are the murky political machinations of a shadowy super-criminal, and there is the way that the plot resolves into a race against time to prevent further murders.

The whole noir alphabet is here, but of course, this is hard sf so the scale has to be different. The small and personal issue of a moral man in an immoral world cannot bear the freight of epic vision and technological grandeur that hard sf demands. So, for instance, the murder that starts this plot on its inexorable course is not of one person but of a habitat, several hundred souls dead in an instant. And our policeman is not some rough-and-ready local cop but a Prefect in a highly sophisticated force charged primarily with ensuring the smooth political running of the myriad of independent habitats that constitute the Glitter Band. (Parenthetically, let me pause to note if not decry the habit of inserting contemporary in-jokes into far-future epics. Itís hard enough to have the band of habitats encircling the planet Yellowstone named after Gary Glitterís backing group, but to then find that a policeman, Prefect Tom Dreyfusís right-hand man, is literally a transformed pig is just a little too much.)

Tom Dreyfus is, of course, a cop with a secret, one that dates back eleven years to when the cops of the Glitter Band had to deal with an apparently inexplicable machine intelligence known as the Clockmaker. Everyone thought the Clockmaker had been destroyed, but now it seems heís back. Unfortunately the Clockmaker, implacable destroyer that he is, may not be the worst enemy that Dreyfus has to face. Because the destruction of habitat Ruskin-Sartorius turns out to be more than the act or revenge it first appears, but rather the first step in an attempt to take over the Glitter Band by the mysterious Aurora, the lone survivor of a long ago attempt to create digitally immortal humans. Dreyfus finds himself standing almost alone between these two superhuman entities, with the lives of millions at stake. His task is made no easier by a traitor in his own organisation, and by the fact that one of his trusted lieutenants is trapped on one of the first habitats taken over by Aurora.

The Prefect is, as this brief summary might suggest, a book that is almost overloaded with plot, though there are times when Reynolds canít quite get the pacing right, occasional longeurs when he canít kick-start the next piece of action, and a climax that is suddenly rushed. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that it is a book with more technological wonders and epic set pieces than it has characters, it is in the main a gripping action adventure that sits well with the on-going development of this particular future universe.