Despite having published a string of heavyweight SF novels totalling thousands of pages, Alastair Reynolds is still experimenting. The tetralogy that made his name - Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap - are huge, sprawling riots of technology populated by dozens of characters who are not always clearly delineated. They open a window on a masterfully depicted future universe whose sheer weight of high-tech detail leaves scant room for character development - in other words, classic hard SF of a kind to delight lovers of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Herbert, Niven and the like. Then, in a departure that pleased some readers and infuriated others, Reynolds swerved into an original blend of hard SF and alternate-universe film noir with Century Rain, before returning to the world of spaceships, nanotechnology, AI, and aliens with Pushing Ice and Galactic North.
In "The Prefect", he modulates perceptibly towards the detective genre, while bowing in the direction of the Tom Clancy school of war novelists and dropping in a little quiet horror that Stephen King would be proud of. The result is a much pacier, focused book with a clear and straightforward plot - although Reynolds still gives us a plentiful dose of technological thrills on the side.
"The Prefect" is set in the Yellowstone system, shortly after the events described in "Revelation Space". The system contains three contrasting human societies, which trade with each other at arm's length: Chasm City, the only major human outpost on the planet Yellowstone; the Parking Swarm, where the spacegoing Ultras dock their vast lighthugger starships; and the Glitter band, a variegated "asteroid belt" of 10,000 human habitats. Each habitat is self-contained and self-governed, with powers of life and death over its citizens. That leaves the Prefects, based on their orbiting citadel Panoply, with little to do except regulate the automated voting system through which all Glitter Band citizens continually express their will. Unless authorized by a vote, for instance, the Prefects are not even allowed heavy weaponry - although the "whiphounds" they carry are not to be trifled with.
Tom Dreyfus, the prefect of the title, is an experienced field operative nearing retirement age. Years ago, he was involved in the disastrous episode of the Clockmaker, a malign artificial intelligence that had to be destroyed after it suddenly began killing people in hideously creative ways, but whose evil legacy still persists. Starting with an apparently routine investigation into voting fraud, Dreyfus and his team find themselves confronted by a rapidly escalating series of threats. No matter what they do, they always seem to be a step behind their unseen adversaries, who might be anyone from scheming habitat owners to Ultra crews, the alien-seeming Conjoiner "spiders" with their group mentality, or even a mysterious software entity hiding somewhere in the Glitter band's network. As the story develops, it seems that no one can be trusted.
Compared to most of Reynolds' previous novels, "The Prefect" rates higher for unputdownability and dramatic tension. On the other hand, it is rather less panoramic and introduces fewer technical innovations - if only because most of them have already appeared in other books. There is some inconsistency in the handling of technology - perhaps the worst example being when a senior Ultra requests blood dialysis because "My ship's having trouble purging my fatigue poisons. I think the filters need changing..." That's 20th century technology in an era when computers can hold conscious representations of human beings in storage, and nanotech "medichines" swarm through bodies, fixing or rebuilding them from inside.
Small flaws like this notwithstanding, I think "The Prefect" is Reynolds' best book so far in terms of focused excitement. Purists may dislike the compromises this entails, but it should reach a wider audience than his previous work.