By Ben Coppin
The Prefect, a hard sf space opera, is the fifth novel in Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series. (All available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk).
Reynolds is a British science fiction writer whose success and reputation seem to be ever increasing - deservedly so, if this novel is anything to go by. Like Iain M. Banks, another hugely successful British science fiction writer, Reynolds has a fetish for extremes, both in terms of the physical and emotional pain to which he pushes his characters (often involving an almost pornographic delight in devising the disturbing tortures imaginable) but also in terms of the alienness some of his alien and even human characters display.
In terms of writing style, however, Banks and Reynolds could not be more different. Reynolds' style is efficient, almost terse and prosaic while Banks writes with flamboyance, delighting in his use of language (his characters' names, for example) as much as the situations and stories he creates. Although Reynolds' writing style lacks some of Banks' surety, it does have a more likeable, almost geeky confidence (presumably borne of his scientific background - for twelve years he was a scientist for the European Space Agency).
The Prefect is also reminiscent of Asmiov's Elijah Baley stories, both in terms of style and content. Like Asimov's stories, it's a detective story, and its protagonist, Tom Dreyfus, is in some ways similar to Baley: a gruff policeman whose integrity and loyalty seem sure to be the cause of his downfall. It's worth noting that Reynolds stands up well in the comparison with Asimov: this novel is every bit as gripping and entertaining as Asimov's and is almost certainly better written.
The Prefect begins with a murder mystery and a series of apparently unrelated investigations, and soon spirals into a system-wide terrorist attack involving hundreds of worlds and millions of potential victims. As an author, Reynolds keeps his science hard, with nothing that isn't conceivable from our current scientific knowledge. In this book he departs from that somewhat with one of his more disturbing creations: the Clockmaker, a mysterious alien creature (or is it a machine?) that creates intricate and deadly toys. It's not until the end of the book that the reader gets any real clue as to what the Clockmaker might be, and when that does happen it feels a little out of place compared with the solid reality of the rest of the book.
The characters are not explored in as much depth as they might have been, and most of them are fairly stereotypical (not least the Prefect himself - so stoic and reliable!) but they fit well into the story and the space that could have been used up telling us about the characters is well spent in developing the action and the addictive plot.
The complaints are minor, though, compared with the overall experience of reading this novel. Reynolds presents a future world that is similar to our own, yet different enough to facilitate the creation of some scenarios that would be impossible to imagine in our world. It is a pacey and imaginative book, and a great standalone introduction to the Revelation Space series for those who've not read Reynolds' other novels. In fact, it would serve as a good introduction to the entire genre for those who have never tried science fiction. Highly recommended.
The Prefect was published in hardback in the UK in April 2007 by Gollancz. It is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
Review Copyright © 2007 by Ben Coppin.
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