Thursday, March 08, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds

This is the second book written by British space opera author Alastair Reynolds (best known for his Revelation Space series) featuring Prefect Tom Dreyfus set in the Glitter Band . The first Glitter Band book was initially called The Prefect (see my A review) but has been re-issued as Aurora Rising

A fascinating feature in the same universe as the Revelation Space books, the Glitter Band is a collection of 10,000 habitats created by humanity in the same solar system as the planet Yellowstone (which is featured in his masterpiece, Chasm City).Through the use of technology the roughly 100 million individuals that live in the Glitter Band participate in a form of ongoing, continuous electronic democracy (via electronic cranial implants), voting frequently on any and all decisions that would affect the Glitter Band as a whole.  Glitter Band citizens have a mutual agreement to be policed by a group called Panoply which is staffed by people called Prefects. There is no other centralized government and while there are local constabulary forces distributed in the Glitter Band, the primary authority tasked with preservation of Glitter Band security is Panoply. Generally, humans are able to craft their habitats and set rules and policies and practices in each habitat as they wish (with Common Articles protecting individual rights). Additionally, there is no faster than light travel and there are no aliens, although technology has advanced 

Of course the Glitter Band is a fascinating setting for all sorts of stories and in various Revelation Space books it has varied in prominence with Chasm City probably the book where it has the largest impact on the plot. In the Revelation Space trilogy the Glitter Band has failed, riven by a computer virus which destroyed implants, thus devastating the key technology on which the society was based. It’s referred to nostalgically in several of the books as a sign that the golden age of human civilization has past.

However, the stories in Aurora Rising and Elysium Fire are set in an earlier time line, when the Glitter Band is still quite intact (but perhaps not flourishing)  and it serves as a backdrop as Prefect Tom Dreyfus investigates crimes and solve mysteries. To me this is awesome because mystery and police procedurals are some of my favorite genres (along with space opera science fiction) and it is always a pleasure to see genre blending done well.

One feature of basically every book (I think) I have read by Reynolds is that there are always appear to be questions raised of self-identity and the presence of either split personalities or repressed memories is common in many of his books. So for example, person A is really person B but A may not even be aware of the fact because their memories of their existence as B have been wiped but the memories slowly resurface. Or perhaps B is deliberately hiding as A because B has committed horrific crimes or actions and wants to avoid detection by authorities or people who would seek revenge on B if they were to be found. It’s clearly a theme that Reynolds likes to explore in various ways as it recurs in almost of his books.

Another recurring idea in Reynolds's work is artificial intelligence, i.e. the notion of sentient machines. He also makes use of technology that allows a “backup copy” of a human personality to be stored and then run in virtual reality environments. These “betas” are like somewhat out-of-date shadows of the original person, but they are a way of implementing quasi-immortality. It's interesting that fellow British SF author Richard K. Morgan uses the same basic idea of human personality storage and takes it in a very different direction in the Takeshi Kovacs books which have since been adapted as the popular Altered Carbon series for Netflix.

I’m spending a fair amount of time in this review discussing various aspects of the setting of Elysium Fire because I want to make the point that the  world-building is a key highlight and central feature of the story; I have probably just scratched the surface in the depiction and description of the interesting futuristic aspects Reynolds includes in his work in general, and in these Glitter Band novels in particular. (I could totally see a TV series set in the Glitter Band, couldn't you?)

Anyway, I don’t want to leave the impression that the story or plot are weak aspects of Elysium Fire by going on and on about the setting. The plot basically involves the mysterious death of multiple citizens and Panoply's reaction to this alarming situation. The rate at which the deaths are being discovered is increasing (there’s a lovely discussion of exponential growth early on that would make any mathematics professor like myself proud) and Panoply is starting to panic as they realize that if the exponential growth rate is extrapolated in time, the entire Glitter Band civilization could collapse in hundreds of days. Tom Dreyfus and a protege of his, Thalia Ng, are tasked with tracking down leads on what could be the cause of these suspicious deaths. For the reader (who has read the other Revelation Space books) we are wondering “Is this the beginning of the end for the Glitter Band?” Especially as a certain individual named Devon Garlin takes advantage of the crisis to raise doubts about Panoply’s ability to protect Glitter Band citizens and explicitly calls for habitats to revoke Panoply’s authority and promote secession and dissolution of the Band itself.

These multiple threads comprise a very complicated tale of murder, revenge and intrigue set in a society with fascinating and fantastic technology written by one of my very favorite authors writing science fiction today. I don't want to give any more of the plot away, but I can say that a major character from the first book (Aurora Rising) makes an important return appearance. It also would seem likely that it is possible we could get future books featuring Panoply and the Prefects set in the Glitter Band, either before or during its inevitable collapse.
Title: Elysium Fire.
Alastair Reynolds.
Paperback: 432 pages.
Date Published: January 23, 2018.
Date Read: March 2, 2018.

★★★★½  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.83/4.0).


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