Skip to main content

Elysium Fire - Alastair Reynolds *****

Reading an author for the first time is always a step in the dark, but just occasionally it becomes immediately clear that here's someone you'll have to keep reading. The last SF authors I can remember feeling this about were Adam Roberts and the late Iain M. Banks - but I am going to have to include Alastair Reynolds in this class.

One of the puffs on the back of the book describes Reynolds as a 'mastersinger of the space opera'. To be honest, I think this was a critic who had thought up a clever turn of phrase and was going to lever it in come what may - because I certainly wouldn't class this as a space opera. Okay, it's set on multiple locations in space and there are spaceships - but adventures in space aren't central to the way the book works. Instead, this is very much a detective story in futuristic science fiction setting.

Although the main character is flagged up on the cover as being Prefect Dreyfus, this is very much an ensemble piece, with half a dozen key characters taking the lead. In this future society where everything is decided by instant polling, keeping the polling mechanism sacrosanct is the job of a cross-habitat force of prefects, who are the main, but not only law-and-order component to the story. They face two intertwined problems - citizens dying unexpectedly from an overheating implant and a rabble-rouser attempting to break up the loose collaboration of habitats. Both need to be dealt with, stretching resources. But there are far more layers to the story, which Reynolds handles beautifully. It's always a page-turner with a huge amount of impetus - but at the same time these different layers are woven together with impressive skill.

If I have one criticism it's that we don't get much of a feel of personality for quite a few of the characters. They do what they do, and there might be one characteristic that comes through, but they tend not to be fully rounded. But there's rarely time to worry too much about this. The storyline also regularly has flashbacks to the mysterious childhood of two of the characters - I usually find repeated flashbacks a real drag on the flow of the narrative and dislike them intensely, but in this case they are so essential that the technique works unusually well.

Just as good as Reynolds' ability to keep the plot surging along is the innovation in his technology and world creation. Again, I haven't seen anything as comprehensively effective as Banks in this, from one of Dreyfus's colleagues who is a hyper-pig to the whiphound defensive devices used by the prefects and a whole collection of small details. What makes Banks' Culture books so special is that the whole collective of technology seems entirely natural, advanced though it is - and there's the same feeling here.

Elysium Fire is the second in a series, which is reasonably obvious from a sub-plot that ends with some unfinished business, but having come to it without reading the first title I didn't feel that I had missed out on anything. The main story here is entirely self-contained. Excellent.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  

Audio book:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…