Fiction Reviews

Elysium Fire

(2018) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 408pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09058-3


Alastair Reynolds once more gives us what we want: a high-tech escapade in a diverse society, in space near an alien world packed with SFnal tropes from genetic modification and information technology through to giant space stations and weird visitors from other star systems, all wrapped up in a mystery fronted by life-and-death incidents that threaten all civilization.  What more could you want?  Well perhaps a robot or two?  Or even artificial recorded human minds.

Hang on… we even get that.

A few centuries ago humans began to successfully colonise the world of Yellowstone but in arriving in the system, not all thought it made sense to live at the bottom of a planetary gravity well within Yellowstone's poisonous atmosphere.  And so today many millions live in hundreds of giant space stations of varying designs ranging from Babylon 5 type cylinders through to Clarke rotating wheels.  This multitude of space stations form the 'Glitter Band' around Yellowstone.

Each station has its own culture or way of life, but the vast majority all have their citizens electronically connected to polling systems so that each individual can vote on issues (literally) of the day.  However, such a polling system needs protection and the Glitter Band needs a security and an investigative force above and beyond that provided by each stations' local constabulary.  This agency, keeping the Glitter Band and its democratic way of life safe, is provided by the Panoply and its Prefects: they deal with all existential threats to the Glitter Band.  Their work is not always appreciated by the Glitter Band's citizens.

Celeb and Julius are two children living in a wealthy estate who are being groomed for life beyond in Yellowstone and the Glitter Band.  Meanwhile, decades later…

400 days ago Cassandra Lens's head literally burned up.  She died.  It was odd, and certainly tragic, but put down as a one-off.  As to what caused it, it was considered that her implants had malfunctioned but the exact reason was unclear as the evidence was literally burned to a crisp.

Then a week or so later there was another death.

And then another in even less time: the deaths were increasing exponentially. If the curve continued then eventually – in just months – everyone in the Glitter Band would be dead.  It was one of the greatest threats with which the Panoply and the Prefects had to tackle.

Thalia Ng and Bancal Sparver were hyper-pigs: genetically modified, uplifted creatures with human-level intelligence. They were also frontline Prefects.  Thalia is on routine duty aboard a station when she receives a call that a citizen has become ill. She is to attend immediately and will soon find out about the threat to the Glitter Band of which only the senior Prefects are aware.  However, the senior Prefects need the citizen's head to preserve the evidence so that they can find out what is going on.  Thalia's day is going to take an unsavoury turn.

Meanwhile, senior Prefect (and Ng and Sparver's line manager) Tom Dreyfus is getting irritated by the anti-Prefect, rabble-rousing rantings of Devon Garlin who seems to want to get the Prefects disbanded…

By my reckoning it has got to be around a decade since we had a 'Revelation Space' novel, for this is what Elysium Fire is; 'Revelation Space' being a series of novels (including Revelation Space itself) and short stories set in Alastair Reynolds future universe in which humanity is spreading out into the stars using near speed-of-light starships crewed by the Ultras. Nor is this the first time Reynold's novels have visited the world of Yellowstone: notably, there was Chasm City.  Fortunately, for readers unfamiliar with 'Revelation Space' each of the novels and stories can be read in isolation of the others, but the more you read, the more the connections add up into a coherent whole. Meanwhile, for 'Revelation Space' fans this return after so many years is most welcome.

Here, seasoned 'Revelation Space' readers will find passing references to ground that Reynolds has previously covered. This includes the first (unsuccessful) attempt by the US Americans to colonise Yellowstone sending embryos from Earth with were raised by robots on arrival. Previous coverage of this episode includes the short story 'Glacial' within the collection Galactic North.

Aside from short stories, I have a feeling the last time Reynolds took us to 'Revelation Space' was with the novel The Prefect and as it happens Elysium Fire continues that story: but, again, do not unduly worry if you have not read that novel in order to enjoy this one. Indeed, it had been so many years since I read The Prefect that I barely remembered anything from it other than the bare bones. Having said that, as I got far into Elysium Fire my memory was jogged and it is clear that there is an overarching story ark concerning two 'artificial intelligences'.  Indeed, without giving away any spoilers, it is equally clear that this overarching arc has not been completed; there is much potential for further resolution.  As for the 'prequel' novel The Prefect, this has just been (2017) re-published by Gollancz as Aurora Rising.

Elysium Fire makes for a solid return to the universe of 'Revelation Space' and is almost as good a place as any for newcomers to begin.  Given that there is possibly a third novel in this sequence to come, let's hope we don't have to wait a decade for that, but if we do I will not mind as long as Alastair Reynolds keeps up the quality.  This novel demonstrates why Reynolds (along with writers such as Iain Banks, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley…) has helped make early 21st century Britain the home of widescreen space-opera.

Jonathan Cowie

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