Elysium Fire - Alastair Reynolds
Elysium Fire - Alastair Reynolds ****
I think I can see why Alastair Reynolds has decided to expand on his earlier novel The Prefect (repackaged as Aurora Rising) and come around to the idea that there are more adventures to tell within the ranks of Panoply, the organisation responsible for monitoring the democratic process within the Glitter Band in the author's Revelation Space universe. I'm not sure why I hadn't noticed it before (perhaps because there's less of a mass killer-robot distraction in this one), but the parallel of the role of the Prefects trying to uphold federalism and democracy within the Glitter Band becomes much more obvious in Elysium Fire when the question of "the will of the people" of a handful of worlds wanting to "take back control" through autonomy arises. To put it another way, it seems like there is going to be what you might call a 'Glexit' crisis.
That however isn't the main problem that the agents of Panoply have to deal with in this second Prefect Dreyfus novel, although as you'd imagine it could well be related. In fact, much in the manner of Aurora Rising, Reynolds manages to create a whole series of mini-crises that Panoply have to deal with, give appropriate attention to, and figure out what is going to cause least damage and can be put on brief hold while they attend to more pressing matters. What commands their immediate response however is a situation where a number of citizens on different habitats have been suffering neural meltdowns seemingly randomly and for no apparent reason. So far only fifty-five 'wildfire' deaths have been reported across the whole system, but if they increase at the same exponential rate (which seems to me like a bit of a melodramatic catastrophising on the part of Panoply), the threat to the Glitter Band could be quite serious.
The behind the scenes battle between Aurora and the Clockmaker from the previous novel continues to rumble on imperceptibly in the background with no conclusion imminent, so that should be a major worry they can put off for another day, but Aurora still makes an appearance and continues to present an ethical dilemma for Dreyfus. What really gets Dreyfus's blood boiling however, and which is nicely incorporated as a very human distraction for the usually composed and by-the-book Prefect, is the appearance of Devon Garlin, a rabble-rousing Nigel Farage-like figure who is stirring up resentment against the unelected bureaucrats of Panoply and the tyranny of a federal democratic process that doesn't give individual habitats enough control over their own affairs.
The idea of a 'Glexit', using similar language and phrases to those we have become familiar with in relation to the UK's position outside Europe, is very obvious and perhaps not terribly subtle on the part of the author who clearly has a strong view on the subject. The question of 'outside' interference, corruption and manipulation of votes can have even greater consequences, and Reynolds doesn't neglect to include another subplot in Elysium Fire involving the influential Voi family, who have discovered ways to influence voting by direct and undetectable intervention into the polling architecture. Banking is also thrown into the equation in another thread that shows the lasting impact of financial risk-taking and treating society as some kind of experiment.
That's quite a bit to weave together and draw into something coherent and meaningful, but Reynolds mastery of his Revelation Space universe shows here. The real-world parallels are not there so much to make a satirical point about current affairs here however as consider how much more complicated such matters would be when trying to police and manage the democratic principles on a much bigger scale in any future alignment of nations, worlds and habitats. The political and economic satire is mixed in of course with the author's solid pulp SF action, and there's still that murder-mystery and criminal investigation aspect to the Prefect Dreyfus series that comes through well here but it's the ideas, the plotting and weaving of them that makes Elysium Fire, for the most part, another great SF read.
In fact, I suspect that the actual quality of Reynolds's writing is probably underrated in favour of the cleverness of his science-fiction ideas and his creative plotting - and certainly I think I tend to overlook or not give enough credit to this aspect. The writing in Elysium Fire is beautifully lucid, the drama and suspense is well paced, there's a good ear for dialogue that captures witty exchanges and opens up insightful observations. The whole story flows naturally, and there are rarely any real cheats. You could regard the whiphounds that are used by Prefects as a non-lethal crowd containment device as being overly convenient in providing other properties that help agents get out of tight situations - but they are actually a neat little creation. No, Reynolds is equally as impressive in his writing as in his creative SF ideas.
That said, Elysium Fire doesn't quite have the same kind of momentum, scale and ambition as Aurora Rising/The Prefect. By the time you start to move towards a confluence of plots and expect to find a bigger picture emerging as you head towards the conclusion, you start to get the impression that it Elysium Fire hasn't really amounted to all that much. Despite Panoply's dire projections, the actual number of lives in danger is much lower than predicted and hardly enough one might think to involve the kind of resources that they end up throwing at it. The finale descends into a ludicrous cackling Bond villain masterplan affair (more like 'Dr. Evil' from Austin Powers), which disappointingly fails to adequately address or resolve the various 'real-world' issues that have been raised. Like Aurora and the Clockmaker however, these are mounting problems could well run on, causing further interesting complications down the line for Prefect Dreyfus and Panoply.
Elysium Rising by Alastair Reynolds is published by Gollancz on 25th January 2018