Elysium Fire by Alistair Reynolds

elysium firePrefect Tom Dreyfus, his protégé Thalia Ng, Prefect Sparver (a hyperpig) and others who debuted in The Prefect (2007) return in Alistair Reynolds new book in his Revelation Space universe.  Following their adventures stopping an AI from taking control of the Glitter Band, a civilization of orbital habitats managing a pretty good democracy through neural implant consensus, Tom and his colleagues are faced with two new threats to the civilization they are sworn to protect. There’s an influential rabble rouser seeding dissent and urging habitats to secede on the one hand and a mysterious string of deaths spread across the worlds that defies analysis and seems to be increasing exponentially.  If the Glitter Band doesn’t dissolve in discontent, it might fail from mass pandemic unless Dreyfus and the agents of Panoply can find out who or what is behind the deaths and restore the public trust.

Elysium Fire returns to Alistair Reynolds Revelation Space, which stretches from the latter part of this century to something like a millennium from now, when humans leave the galaxy for a new start elsewhere. This story takes place somewhere in the middle of all that, during a few hundred years of near Utopian civilization around the planet Yellowstone, an early human colony. The action doesn’t take place planet-side, but in the Glitter Band, an orbital ring of habitats housing millions, of not billions, of humans. Thanks to a democracy based on full citizen participation via neural link polling, things have been going along swimmingly for the past 200 years, without conflict between habitats and civil strife only at levels a local constabulary is needed to keep in check. There are, however, occasional problems that arise under, as Ian Banks would say, special circumstances, and the organization tasked with handling them is the Panoply, whose agents are the Prefects. In our world, they would be analogous to a federal agency tasked with dealing with threats to the country, but more on the scale of the Texas Rangers; one Prefect for every ten habitats.

Prefect Tom Dreyfus is a bit like the BBC Inspector Morse, and these stories owe as much to police procedurals as to Space Opera, of which Reynolds is one of the harder SF masters. This is his second “Emergency,” following that business with the AI that wanted to take over the Glitter Band in his earlier book, “Prefect,” and which ended with the surgical excision of millions of citizens to stop it. Consequently, in Elysium Fire, we find that the Panoply is not scoring high on everyone’s “likes,” and in fact there’s a movement for habitats to separate from the Glitter Band altogether and be rid of their oversight. All of that doesn’t make their job any easier when citizens start dropping dead in a seemingly random pattern, their neural implants radically overheating and…well, it’s a gruesome way to go.

The deaths at the outset of the book are just breaking into the thirties, one every few days, but along an exponential curve that makes the Prefects worry for the continuance of society if it holds true. Deep data mining hasn’t revealed any common links between the suspects, except a possible hint of their attraction to risky business, and interviews with their avatars, curated versions of themselves who live in the “abstraction” are not able to shed any light on the case. The Panoply, in good government fashion, is determined to keep anyone, including most of the Prefects, from knowing that anything is going on, despite the addition of head sized thermos bottles for collecting citizens evidential aspects post-mortem.

All the while, Prefect Tom Dreyfus is being bedeviled by Devon Garlin, the scion of the once powerful Voi family, whose founder created the system of neural link enabled democracy that has endured for the previous two centuries. Devon is the most visible agonist in the movement for habitats to leave the Glitter Band, and he’s everything the leader of a movement should be, charismatic and committed to his cause. Throughout the book Devon and Dreyfus spar, with Tom often coming up on the wrong side of his anger at the manipulative messiah.

And the body count keeps rising, faster and faster as the investigation continues.

The themes of both fragile democracy and confederation should be resonant for anyone considering the current political sphere, from Brexit to the impact of social media and external influences on the voting process. Perhaps these seemed like more distant concerns when The Prefect was written a decade ago, but they loom large now and I expect that it’s social commentary on the author’s part, at least to a degree.

Elysium Fire is good, possibly the best space opera I’ve read this year, but it lacks some of the character development of the previous book, The Prefect. The author may be assuming that you’ve read that and it’s no longer needed, and if you have you can enjoy this book on its own, but there’s nuance and backstory that you won’t get as fully. Where backstory comes in, and it does from time to time, enough detail is provided to keep you in the picture, so there’s no problem reading this book as a standalone, or the series out of order, for that matter.

Things wrap up neatly at the end of Elysium Fire, possibly too neatly, but there are larger story arc elements still in play and we can expect more emergencies to spring up that will require the attention of Prefect Dreyfus and his team. They’ll be ready when the call comes, and I’ll be ready for their report.

This review originally appeared on SFRevu.com: http://sfrevu.com/php/Review-id.php?id=17763