Russell Letson Reviews Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds (Orbit 978-0-316-55567-8, $15.99, 408pp, tp) January 2018.

Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe is another of those omnium-gatherum future histories that can host almost any kind of SF imaginable. One of its fancier features is the Glitter Band, a 25th-century polity spread across the ten thousand habitats circling the planet Yellowstone in the Epsilon Eridani system. The Band is part of the background for Chasm City (2001), in which book it has already come to a bad end, but Reynolds has turned to an earlier, happier period of its history for a sequence of crime stories: The Prefect (2008) and now Elysium Fire, featuring the policing orga­nization that maintains the integrity of the Band’s libertarian political system. (The Prefect has been reissued as Aurora Rising, with the line “A Prefect Dreyfus Emergency” added to the title page, signal­ing possible future Emergencies.)

The Glitter Band’s radically voluntarist system of governance, in which each habitat sets its own rules (no matter how weird or pathological), depends on constant polling of citizen preferences, enabled by neural-interface/communication implants linked to enormous computers – the polling cores – that com­pile the results. The result, says one proponent, has been “two hundred years of prosperity and guarded tolerance, two hundred years of benign, controlled experimentation… [and] anarchy within sensible limits.” One of those sensible limits is represented by Panoply, the only Band-wide authority, a combina­tion regulatory and police agency whose technicians and prefects wield precisely circumscribed powers to prevent corruption or manipulation of the poll­ing system.

Two years after the near-disaster averted in the first novel, a kind of slow-motion plague of im­plant failures – “wildfire” – is killing citizens in a particularly unpleasant manner. Panoply analysts can’t find a common link among the victims, but they have determined that the number of deaths is increasing and that the toll will soon reach a point where knowledge of wildfire will cause a public panic. Prefects Tom Dreyfus, Thalia Ng, and Sparver Bancal (a superpig), who dealt with the previous unpleasantness, are assigned to investigate the plague and identify potential victims. The prefects split up to pursue their own plot threads: Ng and Bancal to look for connections among the victims, and Dreyfus to interview the “betas” – personality recordings – of the wildfire dead. But Dreyfus has another matter on his mind: the activities of Devon Garlin, a particularly effective spokesman for the breakaway campaign that encourages habitats to vote themselves out of the Panoply system. Garlin is not only a breakaway demagogue, but seems to be targeting Dreyfus for special attention, popping up unexpectedly to goad the prefect into imprudent actions. He also seems to have some knowledge of wildfire, and that makes Dreyfus suspicious.

There is another thread whose relevance to and convergence with the prefects’ storylines is with­held for a long time. Twins Caleb and Julius, sons of a wealthy and influential Chasm City founding family, are growing up in isolation on their parents’ estate, being groomed to take part in the family’s leadership role in the affairs of Yellowstone and the Glitter Band. As this part of the story progressed, I kept thinking of a set of crime/mystery tropes that I most strongly associate with the work of Ross MacDonald, where buried family pathologies are at the root of the puzzles.

The Glitter Band’s thousands of utterly free and independent societies offer enormous possibilities for science fictional showing-off, but the police-pro­cedural side of Elysium Fire is less concerned with the bizarre and sometimes pathological outliers than is its predecessor. While the proctors’ investigations offer peeks into some unsavory corners of the cul­ture, most of their interviews with victims’ families and colleagues and even with the dead reveal lives of quite ordinary ordinariness. There is much more strangeness in the Caleb-and-Julius plot, since the boys are being prepared for a very special status and are being given powers over foundational technolo­gies not available to the run of citizens. Their story is a mystery within a mystery – to them as well as the reader – wrapped in layers of misdirection and concealment, just as the prefects’ efforts to trace the cause and spread of wildfire keep finding tantalizing possibilities that don’t quite add up – until they do. At that point the threads converge on a revelation that satisfies the demands of the SF and mystery sides of the story.

The series rubric that has been added to the reis­sue of The Prefect/Aurora Rising suggests that Dreyfus and his colleagues may face other emergen­cies in volumes to come. And since the future fall of the Glitter Band is established, the exertions of the prefects are framed by a story-already-written that will inevitably be read back into these books. It makes for an interesting experience, not unlike reading an Arthurian adventure in full knowledge of what awaits Lancelot, Guinevere, Arthur, and various Grail knights, or as though Shakespeare had decided to write Hamlet’s Adventures in England. Until that final emergency arises, though, Dreyfus and his colleagues will presumably keep plugging the holes and putting out fires.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the January 2018 issue of Locus.

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