Elysium Fire

Elysium Fire, by Alastair Reynolds
(Gollancz, 2018)

The front cover announces this to be A Prefect Dreyfus Emergency, which suggests a series. In fact Dreyfus’s first appearance was in 2007’s The Prefect, which has since been retitled Aurora Rising – the first Prefect Dreyfus Emergency. Presumably we can expect more, hopefully at a rate of more than one per decade.

This is to be welcomed because the series is set earlier in Reynolds’ Revelation Space series. We are in the Glitter Band, the belt of habitats surrounding the planet Yellowstone, at the height of human civilization. So, the same past as the other Revelation Space novels, with the galaxy-threatening complications yet to emerge. The Glitter Band is policed by the Panoply organisation, for which Dreyfus works, though “policed” is a harsh term. Panoply is dedicated, almost to the point of fanaticism, to letting each habitat go its own way and do its own thing, as long as it doesn’t impinge on the liberties of other habitats – in which case Panoply comes down like a ton of bricks. It is very much a Golden Age – even the locals think of it as the Belle Epoque.

But not everyone is happy, and Dreyfus’s bête noire is a man who thinks that despite everything Panoply has too much power. He is agitating for habitats to separate from the rule of the Prefects and – his exact phrase – take back control of their borders. Pause, two, three, to remember that Reynolds spent most of his professional life working for the European Space Agency, and has a European wife. And continue.

Every good detective story is built afresh from the keel up. It must contain its own precepts, premises, assumptions and rules, and introduce them as though every reader is a first timer and has no idea about anything that is going on. An sf detective story must do even heavier lifting because the mystery should only be possible in the first place from an sfnal point of view. There is certainly no problem with Elysium Fire there. The stakes are satisfyingly, civilisation-threateningly high. A detective in this milieu has more important things to do than working out who killed the body in the library. It can be read by Revelation Space newcomers and veterans alike, with enough reference to the previous book – humans, non-humans and settings – to keep the latter happy.

If there are problems, then one goes with the territory and one is inevitable.

First, Dreyfus is just not a very good detective. He has a good instinct for the kind of mysteries that have implications for whole civilisations, but on the personal level he is the kind of old school cop whose notion of policing is to go spraying accusations around the dramatis personae until one of them sticks. The actual investigative police work is left up to his hapless subordinate, Thalia Ng. If this is a Prefect Dreyfus Emergency then it’s just as much a Prefect Ng Mystery. Dreyfus is also the go-to man for any literal deus ex machina that wants to deliver information to further the plot: in fact ultimately he is led all the way to the conclusion. But then he does at least use detection to understand not only where he’s going, but even better, give we the readers a fighting chance at working it out too.

The other is the antebellum feel shared by both The Prefect and Elysium Fire. As both are set before the novels that spelled out the Revelation Space series, we sadly know what’s coming, and it isn’t pretty. Any success by Dreyfus can only be transient. The Belle Epoque is doomed. We know that the Glitter Band will become the Rust Belt, and the thriving civilisation that Dreyfus knows and protects will be ravaged. It would be interesting to see if that becomes the last Prefect Dreyfus Emergency.