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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Tim Harford - Four Way Interview

Photo by Frank Monks Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of the million-selling The Undercover Economist. Tim is a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s More or Less the iTunes-topping series Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, and the podcast Cautionary Tales. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House. He is an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford and an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. Tim was made an OBE for services to improving economic understanding in the New Year honours of 2019. His latest book is How to Make the World Add Up . Why statistics? Statistics tend to be viewed as a vector for misinformation - hence the popularity of Darrell Huff's book How To Lie With Statistics (said to be the most popular book about statistics ever written) and numerous modern classics such as Bad Science and Innumeracy. But statistics are also a vital tool for understanding the world

There are Places in the World where Rules are Les Important than Kindness - Carlo Rovelli ****

This is, without doubt, Carlo Rovelli's best book. I have not been impressed by his previous popular science titles - too much purple prose and not enough depth. But in this collection of wide ranging short articles, he has found his metier, able to flit from interest to interest, often captivating with his enthusiasm for everything from Nabokov to Newton’s alchemy. And, unlike its predecessors, this book is a decent length. Rovelli is clearly far more interested in philosophy than many physicists, rightly criticising those who make blanket denials of its value. A good number of the pieces touch on philosophy and its application to science, on subjects from quantum mechanics to consciousness. However, having as he does a scientific viewpoint, those who are put off by philosophy should still find the pieces interesting, if challenging to their prejudices. Some of the articles are solid science - for example a trio of articles on black holes. Others take us into perhaps surprising as

Cosmic Odyssey - Linda Schweizer *****

Based on its generic-sounding title, you might expect this to be a broad-ranging history of astrophysical concepts – and if you buy it on that basis you won’t be disappointed. From stellar evolution and the structure of galaxies to supermassive black holes, quasars and the expansion of the universe, Linda Schweizer shows – in admirably non-technical detail – how our understanding of the fundamental pillars of modern astronomy developed over several decades from a standing start. In spite of that, this isn’t a generic history at all. It has a very specific remit, encapsulated in the subtitle: ‘How Intrepid Astronomers at Palomar Observatory Changed our View of the Universe’. California’s Palomar Observatory is home to the ‘200-inch’ (5.1 metres – the diameter of the main mirror) Hale telescope, which was the premier instrument for optical astronomy from its inauguration in 1949 until the Hubble telescope became fully operational 45 years later. This was perhaps the most eventful and fas