The Prefect, By Alastair Reynolds
The galaxy spanning ‘space opera’ is a favourite term among marketeers of science fiction, probably because it promises Star Wars possibilities, suggests thickness and is in no way operatic whatsoever. Marketeers are this century’s great illusionists—Houdini had nothing on them.
Alastair Reynolds’s The Prefect, despite what the cover plug says, is anything but galatic, or operatic. It doesn’t cross light years like his other Revelation Space novels. It doesn’t even cross genres. The Prefect is a sci-fi crime thriller, with a dash of horror thrown in—not a ‘space opera’. Largely set in a single location, the title Prefect is Dreyfus, a man with A Past who is an investigator of sorts. He isn’t charged with protecting and serving the 110 million citizens of the Glitter Band—10,000 tamed space-rocks-turned-habitats in orbit around Yellowstone, one of the first planets to be settled outside of the First System—but upholding the Demarchist voting system that underpins the whole society.
The Demarchists, the Glitter Band and Yellowstone, as well as the Ultras (chimerics) and Conjoiners (think The Faculty but with nanobots and free will), are among the big ideas that the cover line is using to pigeon-hole this novel. A galaxy full of human factions separated by light years whose infrequent tussles with alien lifeforms threaten their survival—what should we call that? It’s a sci-fi crime thriller. With horrible parts. The big ideas are important, but they’re background noise to the central arc of the story—people die, society’s closest thing to a police force investigates, story unfolds–which Reynolds pulls off with aplomb, almost.
The crime elements are well played and plentiful without feeling generic. A habitat that is home to almost a million people is blown to pieces, killing everyone onboard. Dreyfus and his pig—yes, that joke is a good one—deputy try to find out what happened, and why. The prefects interview their only witnesses, computer simulations of real people, discover a prime suspect nailed to his own spaceship, all the while the lead character’s Past haunts him from afar. Where The Prefect excels is taking crime elements and glorying in their evolution and development. Where Chandler might misdirect, Reynolds reveals early on the identities of the main antagonists, because their power is so incomprehensible that anonymity wouldn’t do them much good.
Most of the leads are also well put together, with Dreyfus the perfect professional despite His Past, Sparver the wise cracking deputy and partner, and Supreme Prefect Jane Aumonier, the respected commander who happens to have an an alien artefact attached to her body that will kill her if she falls asleep. These and a few others push the story forwards, but they are tediously consistent save for one particular prefect who cannot be named because of spoilers. There’s little in the way of development or change where these men and women are concerned, pale as they do in comparison to the wonders around them.
Science is Reynolds’s bag—he used to work for the European Space Research and Technology Centre—and he uses it strictly here. Harcore science fiction, is what the full-time nerds call it. That’s sci-fi that’s true to accepted theory. This is best epitomised in the Revelation Space universe by the lighthuggers, which are interstellar spacecraft that can almost travel at the speed of light, because accepted theory has it that nothing can travel faster than light. Despite what sceptics might consider to be a limitation, not pushing his imagination beyond physics as we currently understand it, Reynolds casts his net wide, creating the human factions, revelling in the possibilities of nanotechnology, and much more besides. A particular treat are the alien species, represented in spectacular fashion in The Prefect by the Clockmaker.
The hardcore sci-fi is also the biggest drawback in The Prefect, in large parts, because Reynolds hasn’t quite mastered where, when and how to place it. Where a conversation between characters is used to explain how a habitat will be sabotaged to escape a slowly approaching threat, Reynolds would’ve been better off using the character’s mind’s eye. The poor pacing of this overly technical conversation slows the whole story down, so much so that these passages can be skipped without missing much.
The Prefect is a solid crime mystery set in a universe of big but plausible ideas. It falters in its pacing and poor character development. But neither detract from what is a thoroughly enjoyable story set a in world that demands plenty more acts.
Rating: Turned On (Solar Powered, So Only When The Sun Is Shining)