Book review: The Prefect (Revelation Space 5) by Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect is one of the most popular books in the Revelation Space universe.  It rates marginally higher than the other books in the series on Goodreads, even though it didn’t amass as many reviews.  I think the positive reception is mainly due to more relatable characters, a better understandable story and a delightful worldbuilding.  It is indeed a pleasure to read, and being a standalone novel, it requires no knowledge of the previous four books.

The story takes place around the planet Yellowstone, which was settled by human colonists.  This star system includes about ten thousand human habitats in space, collectively known as the Glitter Band.  These habitats range from small rocks that can support a few people, to large circular or tube-shaped objects, which may house hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.  Altogether, there is about one hundred million people in the Glitter Band.

These people tend to congregate with others based on their beliefs and living preferences, and over time various habitats became narrowly specialized.  In some, people are decapitated and only the heads survive and are attached to the Abstraction, a futuristic version of the Internet.  In other habitats, people choose to live in a voluntary Stalinist-like society, or total democracy, or a host of various environments that cater to their particular, often decadent wishes.  Within their habitats, the people are free to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t infringe on other people’s freedom of choice.  Globally, they only must abide by one rule: not to tamper with the band-wide election process, which runs constantly, and where everyone has a right to cast a vote.

This rule is enforced by the Panoply, an organization of space police.  Part detective, part judge and part executioner, the Prefects of the Panoply have the right and the ability to force a lockdown on a habitat that tampers with the election process or euthanize anyone who hinders them.  One of the top prefects is Tom Dreyfus.  After he locks down a habitat that tampered with its election computer – severs its Abstraction access and blocks transport – he is assigned to investigating another habitat, which was destroyed, killing everyone inside.  It appears that the heavily body-modifying Ultras, who crew interstellar ships and keep away from the rest of the humanity, were responsible for the atrocity.  As Dreyfus investigates, however, he finds that the Ultras were framed, and the leads point to a conspiracy between a yet unknown Prefect and an artificial intelligence, named Aurora.  Moreover, it appears that the conspiracy is aimed at undermining the democratic process in the Glitter Band.

In the meantime, Prefect Talia Ng, who works for Dreyfus, is traveling to four habitats to install upgrades to the election software.  Unbeknownst to her, the upgrades contain a backdoor that allows Aurora to take over the networks of the four habitats, slaughter everyone, and mass-produce war robots that are then sent to take over more habitats.  This completely changes the scope of the investigation, but at that time Dreyfus had already exposed the traitorous Prefect and learned that the habitat he was investigating was destroyed because it hosted another artificial intelligence, which was the only thing Aurora was afraid of.  The new A.I. was supposed to be destroyed by the Panoply eleven years prior, after it slaughtered a group of scientists, including Dreyfus’s wife.  While the rest of the Panoply is battling Aurora’s robots and tries to slow her down, Dreyfus learns the location of the other A.I., travels there to negotiate a pact against Aurora with it, but a final confrontation with the traitorous Prefect Gaffney sets the A.I. loose.  It still engages Aurora, distracting her enough to allow for the Panoply to gain upper hand in the battle.

The story is not as simple or as linear as I made it up to be.  There are many side stories, such as Aurora’s motivation (she foresees a plague, which had actually happened in the earlier books, taking place decades in the future), the plight of the Panoply leader, the Supreme Prefect, who was seriously incapacitated during the rogue A.I.’s rampage, the origin story of said A.I., code-named The Clockmaker, the role Dreyfus had in defeating it, and a few more.  All of them are enriching the main story, and many of them add to the wonderful worldbuilding Reynolds had already committed on his universe.

Writing prequels has its risks.  The author may go contrary to the readers’ preconceptions of various characters, or even completely change the character if his universe.  Reynolds avoided this trap easily.  First, in his earlier books he rarely hinted at the past, so he was able to design that past without any constraints.  Second, The Prefect does not have any characters that are featured in any of the later books.  And finally, Reynolds changed the scope of his story.  He is known for immense storylines, which carry over vast distances and often over thousands of years.  Here, the action takes place in merely a week, with travel distances of at most several hours.  This made the story feel small and insignificant in relation of the Revelation Space universe, and it allowed the author to focus on characters instead.

In all the books by Reynolds I read, possibly with the exception of Chasm City (Revelation Space 2), which also has a similar spatial and temporal scope, the characters are hardly what I’d call relatable.  Most are outright unsympathetic, and nearly everyone sounds melodramatic.  That’s not to say there is nothing to like – one of my favorite science fiction characters is Ilia Volyova from the main story arc of Revelation Space – but his characters are mainly acquired taste.  This is not the case in The Prefect, where the reader can root for Tom Dreyfus from the beginning.  He interacts with people, he is often abrasive, but he is fair, and full respect and loyalty he gets from his deputies is fully deserved.  His superiors either defer to him or try to get him out of their way, but never ignore him.  One can easily aspire to have the same degree of integrity and intellect as Dreyfus.  Side characters, especially his deputies and those superiors who are sympathetic to his cause, are also fairly well developed, with their own back stories and motivations.  This makes the book more accessible to the general reader than the main Revelation Space books.

In addition to the characterization, the worldbuilding in this novel is absolutely delightful.  Other Revelation Space books take place after the melding plague, which Aurora was so worried about.  This plague decimated the human population and created visuals straight out a gothic horror, akin to the Alien universe.  The world in this book is much more vibrant and fuller of life.  People actually get to interact with each other on a large scale, and the variety of different habitats is something I didn’t see since The Memory of Whiteness by Kim Stanley Robinson, published more than twenty years prior.  I truly felt that I wanted to explore the Glitter Band much more.

Unfortunately, there are elements of the novel that I wasn’t so fond about.  With the increased focus on characters, Reynolds employs tropes that are all the more obvious in contrast with his very original worldbuilding.  The most obvious trope is the characterization of Prefect Gaffney as truly evil.  He is single-minded in trying to bring down the Glitter Band, and he is totally unapologetic about it.  In fact, his adversaries, in particular Tom Dreyfus, are trying to rationalize his actions, but he simply does not care.  I haven’t seen such a one-dimensional villain in a quality book for a long time.  The second problematic character is one of Dreyfus’s deputies, Sparver.  He is the token racial (specieist) minority here, and because of this he faces abuse from others.  He is also such a typical sidekick character that his actions are telegraphed well before the time he enters the stage.  In fact, the reader will expect Sparver to enter the stage and do a certain action, and Sparver rarely disappoints.

It is the predictability of certain characters and events that may further lower the difficulty bar for readers, but I felt that it also lowered the quality of the book, compared to the main story arch of Revelation Space.  The Prefect is still a wonderful standalone book, and an excellent introduction to Alastair Reynolds.  It does not awe with the author’s usual scale, is easy to comprehend and offers a coherent, albeit a more conventional story.  Any fan of science fiction will do well to give this novel a try.

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