The PrefectÂ by Alastair Reynolds reminds me of those forgotten dreams of goingÂ deep into space and traversing the universe in fantastical ways. One can almost readÂ Space OperaÂ as a slightly more innocent version of the cynical post-cyberpunk SF that we have now. Yet that would be an oversimplistic reading.
Returning to the Inhibitor universe Â first set up in Revelation Space, this is a dark thriller-esque murder hunt. The Ruskin Sartorius inhabitat has been destroyed. Tom is asked to find the culprits but uncovers a larger conspiracy, leading to the Supreme Prefect herself concerning voter fraud, an AI long thought to be extinct and the Clockmaker – a being whose existence is wanted terminated by everybody.
Whilst Reynolds delivers a far flung universe which teeters between the Culture series and Heinlein’s galaxies, he deliversÂ a sense of wonder tinged with human deceit. As per the Culture books and Harrison’s Centauri Device, this is a knowing universe, aware of its limits and history but determined to play with these boundaries. The ship names certainly come out of this tradition but what really surprised and delighted me was the conversation aboutÂ the sentience of Artificial Intelligence which is the real novel here.
Various characters have been placed into AI status as their bodies have disappeared. ReynoldsÂ debates the nature of AIs and are they “real” beings or a state of machine intelligence. Starting out small, he works his way up to Aurora and the Clockmaker, both essentially human constructs who have finely tuned senses of being. Aurora plays on the 1980s Skynet fears and fears of the all-pervasive nature of the Internet whilst this is deconstructed by the conversation with the Clockmaker. It all turns a bit Phil Dick at this point with the multiple attempts on reality and its elastic nature.
Reynolds plays out a perfectly good thriller under all this, fast and entertaining, building upon Space Opera and taking it to new places. As an astronomer, he uses the science to devlop the sense of wonder, the strangeness in current technologies and theories. Reynolds has added to his Space Opera oeuvre with a magnificent voice.