Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review of "The Prefect" by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds has been quoted as saying the only good sci-fi is sci-fi that is “fictionally interesting”.  Not a politician’s statement, the author was aiming at putting value on the entertainment side of the genre—big concept, big story sci-fi as it were.  And his work shows every indication of walking the talk.  Pedestrian prose that assumes nothing of the reader, plot holes ignored in favor of plot twists, and theme taking a backseat to action, Reynolds excels at producing the tropes of Golden Era sci-fi: flashy space battles, cool tech, and fast-paced stories that grab you and go.  His 2007 The Prefect is no exception.

Returning to Revelation Space after a four year hiatus, The Prefect is the story of Detective Tom Dreyfus and his fight to keep the Glitter Band in the hands of existing powers.  Defining ‘fragmented society’, the Glitter Band is a 10,000 strong collection of inhabited space modules orbiting a sun.  Each module having its own population, culture, and laws, they nevertheless adhere to a universal voting system, a system which Dreyfus’ prefecture is responsible for protecting the integrity of.  When a fraudulent voting scam coincides with a gruesome piece of sabotage that destroys one of the modules, Dreyfus and his team, Prefects Ng and Sparver, head out to solve the mystery and put an end to the voting issue.  It isn’t long, however, before they themselves are calling for a vote from the citizenry of the Band.  The choice whether or not to allow the Prefects to use weapons, the threat is more than the collective might of the modules may be able to handle.

Reynolds obviously having spent a lot of time with sci-fi of old, The Prefect is classic genre storytelling.  If it weren’t for its contemporary-tuned tech language and the occasional f-bomb, the novel’s dialogue and plot could be mistaken for a work much older.  Allegiances divided along clear lines, the scope of story at world-takeover size, and with most of the plot devices contrived, one couldn’t ask for a more traditional science fiction offering.  From the altruistic main character to the unshakeable evil abroad, the fuse of democracy challenged to the mainstream plot twists, all speak to a style harkening back to the pulp days of sci-fi.  Fans of big concept sci-fi, like Star Wars, should love this novel.

Not entirely retro, Reynolds places his own stamp on the proceedings.  The whiphounds, the polling cores, the scarab bomb attached to Jane’s neck, and the Glitter Band itself, while easily recognizable sci-fi tropes, are nevertheless Reynolds’ own.  Another positive aspect of the book is its examination, albeit slight, of the value of life: the classic kill a few to save many, or let them all die.  Certainly not delved into in any meaningful fashion, the time the author spends with the idea nevertheless puts a few drops of fuel in the tank, at least getting the discussion off the ground.  Were Reynolds’ scenario to have been in less than James-Bond-world-takeover fashion, perhaps the commentary would have a chance to take on more meaning.  Given The Prefect’s focus on entertainment, those who care little for ideological discussion will not take notice.

The simile of a 15 year old boy at a whorehouse came to mind thinking about the writing style of The Prefect: he knows what to do, but not how to do it.  Blocky and linear, Reynolds’ prose moves from point to point like bars on a graph.  Words connecting the dots on a matrix of story, most scenes are relayed in directly descriptive fashion, little that is smooth or poetic in style to transition story in curves instead of planes.  Transparent to say the least, the author holds the reader by the hand, explaining backstory and situation every tiny step of the way.  Every now and then tossing out an idea with no prior exposure to create ‘mystery’, all else is presented in a style as direct as fiction can be.

Trading espirit for the direct relation of information, as a result the narrative lacks verve, all the while accomplishing its goals from a backstory, tech, and plot diction point of view.  The result is heterogeneous characterization (all speak with the same voice) and dialogue delivered either too flat or too melodramatic (“Killer robots are coming for us!” is a line I believe actually uttered by one of the characters).  Contrarily, it also means that readers do not have to worry they’ve missed key plot points and can relax knowing Reynolds will fill them in at some later point.  In keeping, the action scenes are presented in fascinating detail, the jets of engines, pulse of weapons, and nuclear blasts burning off the page.  One thing for certain, you cannot say the novel lack punch.  

In the end, The Prefect is good sci-fi bang for the buck if an interstellar police thriller is your game.  Reynolds moving the plot along in fine fashion, there is never a shortage of imaginative tech, plot revelations, or tension. Whether or not the tech, plot reveals, or character behavior behind the tension is coherent is up to the reader to decide. In my opinion fragmented, the story nevertheless builds a head of steam that will thoroughly engage fans of space opera, especially if they are willing to forgive morally whitewashed characters, story developments that only mostly make sense, and heavily contrived plot devices (the scarab attached to the Supreme Prefect's neck is as cheesy a device as I’ve ever read).  Not on the literary side, this one is for the action/big concept people, just as Reynolds intended.

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