It’s been eighteen years since Alastair Reynolds’ first novel set in Revelation Space was released, though earlier short stories had introduced that universe, and it has remained his most famous creation though his last full-length exploration was over a decade ago in 2007’s prequel novel The Prefect which introduced Tom Dreyfus of Panoply.
Repackaged late last year under the title Aurora Rising and now bearing the banner “A Prefect Dreyfus Emergency,” that was a prelude to the launch of Reynolds’ second novel to carry that tag, and combined with the title Elysium Fire it offers an indication how rapidly that conflagration might sweep the Glitter Band given circumstances manipulated by parties unknown.
The planet Yellowstone and its Chasm City have been lodged in the minds of Reynolds’ readers since they were introduced in a much later era in his second novel, a reminder that there was a time before before the arrival of the Melding Plague, the glory of the Glitter Band, one hundred million souls spread across ten thousand orbiting self-contained habitats.
Attending to routine upgrades in the polling core of Shiga-Mintz Spindle, Thalia Ng did not expect to end the day running back to her clipper carrying the head of a dead man in a cryobox, but she was the closest Prefect and first on the scene when the alert was received; returning to Panoply she is forbidden from speaking about the incident with anyone by the formidable Supreme Prefect herself, Jane Aumonier.
Unable to discuss the matter even with her colleagues, Ng is unaware there have already been more than fifty previous unexplained deaths across the Glitter Band which have occurred in the same manner, a catastrophic thermal overload of neural implants which boil the brain from within. Understandably, the agents of Panoply do not wish to provoke panic and have taken all necessary measures to suppress information while they investigate, but that is not their only concern.
Leading a small but vocal movement, Devon Garlin, scion of one of the richest families in the Glitter Band who has reinvented himself as a “man of the people,” is calling for the secession of habitats and the dissolution of the Band, arguing that Panoply and the Prefects are unable to carry out their duties effectively and without bias; should word of the growing epidemic, codenamed Wildfire, leak out, he will have all the ammunition he needs to demonstrate his case.
The ease with which Reynolds slips back into his home universe is palpable, his prose, characters and plot a fast-moving maelstrom of convolution and sinister circumstance; as prime beneficiary of Wildfire, is Garlin too obvious a suspect? Aumonier is resistant to Dreyfus’ suspicions, conscious that there is already bad feeling between the Prefect and the heir to the Voi fortune, but nor are any other of their sparse leads more promising, the connection between the victims as tenuous as vapour.
Those readers who know the wider universe of Revelation Space will know that this will eventually end, already has from some perspective, the Glitter Band reduced to the Rust Belt in less than a century, and it is disconcerting to witness the opulence and apparent serenity of the socially and technologically advanced environment and how easily it can be undermined by those who position themselves as serving the common good so long as they are at the front of the queue.
While marketed as a Prefect Dreyfus emergency, Aumonier, Ng and Sparver Bancal are equally prominent and interesting, all characters familiar to those who have read Aurora Rising, joined by Chasm City’s Detective-Marshal Hestia Del Mar, and neither is Aurora itself forgotten, nor the equally mysterious and even more dangerous Clockmaker, though prior familiarity with either the characters or these many worlds is not essential.
Each of the habitats unique, with their own populations and customs, even the dead have a voice, the first identified victim Cassandra Leng interviewed by Dreyfus post-mortem via a beta simulation of her recorded brain state; a technology Reynolds has utilised before, he also revisits the idea that there will always be those for whom their children are little more than science experiments.
In many ways a novel about democracy and representation but also how easy it is to sway opinion with blazing rhetoric fed by shapeless fears to a position unfounded by evidence, to light a fire kindled by lies and underhanded action, those who act honourably are at a disadvantage in that they cannot employ the same tactics to maintain the equilibrium.
Despite being set centuries in the future the aptly named Elysium Fire is very much a novel of our times, and while Reynolds’ immediate move is to follow up the space pirate adventure of his most recent book Revenger it is to be hoped that at some point he will return to visit the Prefects of Panoply again.