Wednesday, August 05, 2009

[Sean's Summation] The Prefect (Alastair Reynolds)

Continuing my fascination with UK-based SF, I grabbed a hardback copy of The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds from Amazon awhile back. Unfortunately, quite a bit got between me and reading it, so it was only recently that I was able to sit down and tackle it.

The Prefect is set in Reynold's Revelation Space universe [0], complete with the complement of Demarchists, Conjoiners, Ultras, and his other usual factions and freaks. The novel takes place at the height of the Demarchy's power in the Glitter Band, a group of more than 10,000 space habitats orbiting the terrestrial planet Yellowstone (which is in turn circling around the star, Epislon Erandi). In the Glitter Band, the Demarchists have constructed an anarcho-capitalist utopia, powered by seriously far-out nanotech. The central characters are prefects, specialized police officers, charged with maintaining the machinery that allows the populace to vote -- and prevent the same populace from tampering with it. The plot of the novel forces the prefects through increasingly deeper and broader conspiracies, threatening the very existence of Glitter Band society.

There are obvious shades of current debates on liberty vs. the police power reflected in the story. The prefects are denied actual firearms, much like today's UK where most constables carry only truncheons. The billy-club, however, is replaced with semi-autonomous whiphounds that attack and defend using monofiliment and a limited AI. The gruesome, up-close-and-personal attention dished out by our primitive implements is preserved, however.

Throughout the book, Reynolds waxes philosophic with a purpose. Through the mirror of his universe, he critiques our current culture of safety over freedom in the face of threats to national security. When is it acceptable for the executive to disregard the wishes of the populace and the contract by which it governs? What evils can be committed in the name of the state and insurance of future safety at the cost of individual lives and freedoms? Is the benevolent tyrant preferable to the will of the mob?

Of course, any libertarian hack can write a story like that [1], Reynolds keeps it unique and engaging in two ways:

1. His universe is unique in its believability. While I doubt he is the first writer of hard SF space opera, his work represents the state of the art. Most of the elements of Demarchist, Conjoiner, and Ultra society seem believable, considering both the technological and sociological possibilities. His universe becomes almost a three dimensional character unto itself -- it possess depth, rationale, and a human touch.

2. His characters are also three dimensional constructs inside this universe. There are no heroic, dashing Captain Kirk's or infallibly prophetic Hari Seldon's. While Reynolds does rely on quite a few familiar tropes -- the maverick cop, the the scheming vizier [2], etc. -- their use is to give us something to identify with inside the framework of the story. The characters, after all, must seem somewhat human to us, as they exist in a nearly fantastic setting.

The whole thing, of course, is enhanced by the dramatic irony if you've read the other books in the series. The Prefect takes place well before the events of Chasm City or Revelation Space, so the foreshadowing contained takes a much more ominous note once one knows exactly what is to come.

I have quite enjoyed the other books in this series and The Prefect did not let me down. It may have certain formulaic elements but the questions posed by the intertwining of the familiar plot elements with the unique framework of his universe make it well worth the weekend read.

[0] While it's not as voluminous as, say, Terry Pratchett's Discworld, it's got 4 novels and a slew of short stories and novellas comprising it.
[1] I'm only poking a little bit of fun at Cory Doctorow.
[2] First order of business if I ever become a CEO, President, or Evil Overlord: fire/impeach/execute anyone with a goatee on my staff.

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