ELYSIUM FIRE: wonder vs catharsis

Review of ELYSIUM FIRE by Alastair Reynolds.

Before reading ELYSIUM FIRE I first read the short story “Open and Shut” and then the novel THE PREFECT to prepare for this new book. It is billed as a standalone novel but our understanding and enjoyment is greatly enriched by reading these two prequels. In fact, I think that the attempt to make ELYSIUM FIRE a standalone novel by incorporating numerous infodumps to explain to the first-time reader material that was acquired more contextually in THE PREFECT actually weakened it.

ELYSIUM FIRE (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency 2) is a worthy sequel to THE PREFECT, which is now retitled AURORA RISING. It presents us once again with a gripping story, full of impatience-provoking suspense and surprising reversals.

However, most of the necessary world building was done in THE PREFECT, so the sense of wonder, so ably conveyed by Reynolds, is diminished if one has read the first volume, which managed to combine harmoniously both wonder and intrigue. The sequel is much more explanatory than THE PREFECT. If the stylistic ideal for fiction is show, don’t tell, in this second volume we have more telling, less showing, and the harmonious balance is lost.

New elements include duplicitous sub-plot concerning two morally ambiguous brothers who are brought up in a vast mansion full of dark secrets within secrets and strange technology, that recalls Gene Wolfe’s novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”. There is a similar exploration of the complex relations between identity, doubles, and memory.

(The SFFaudio Podcast episode #439  contains a very interesting discussion of the Gene Wolfe novella).

The theme of doubles is repeated in the ethical and legal concerns over the ontological status and the rights of digital copies of people, and the potential blurring of the notions of sentience, responsibility, and culpability.

There is also a shift of emphasis in the analysis of democracy. Whereas THE PREFECT expanded on the potentiality of a technology-assisted democracy to produce extreme living choices, ELYSIUM FIRE focuses more on the loopholes and failings such as the power of demagogy, the identitarian will to secession, and the manipulation of information.

One of the sub-plots that was foregrounded in the the first volume, that of the battle between two vast distributed artificial intelligences (Aurora and the Clockmaker), is carried over into this volume but remains mostly in the background. Its continued but unresolved presence suggests a formulaic plot device capable of generating at least a third “Prefect Dreyfus Emergency” novel, or even more.

This develoment promises to reinforce the primacy of intrigue over cosmo-technical invention that characterises this second volume, and so perhaps to a further decline in science-fictional wonderment in favour of police procedural excitement and catharsis.

In short ELYSIUM FIRE is an enthralling novel that makes one want to race through the book and to finish it in as few sittings as possible. It comes close to, but does not fully match, the balance of speculative invention and suspense-filled intrigue that made the first book such a successful fusion of sf and detective genres.