Dark SF at Trei Publishing House (Alastair Reynolds: The Prefect)

(a reader’s guide to fantasy)

by Oliviu Crâznic
translation from Romanian by Zenovia Popa [MTTLC student]
click aici pentru versiunea română


In Romania, there are currently three publishing houses hallmarks for the scientific-fantastic literature enthusiasts (I remind here that – in my opinion, a view adopted  following careful analysis of more theories  – the scientific-fantastic literature together with the macabre-fantastic, heroic-fantastic etc. are part of a fantastic literature in a broad sense, as an opposition to the realistic literature and as a distinct field dedicated to the writings considered to be, no matter the reason – supernatural, anticipative/speculative scientific or any other nature  – non-conforming to the reality we currently experience). I refer, of course, to Nemira Publishing House, with its consacrated Collection ‘Nautilus’, Paladin Publishing House (whose editorial plan in our scope of interest is prepared by the collection coordinator Michael Haulică) and Trei Publishing House, with its Collection ‘Epsilon’. As we have discussed about the first two publishing houses listed here on different occasions, we think some comments on Trei Publishing House are appropriate.

Relatively to the new SF book market in Romania, the Collection ‘Epsilon’ imposed almost instantaneously also due to the fact that it has a contiguous history. More precisely, the coordinator of ‘Epsilon’ is no one else but Mihai-Dan Pavelescu, well-known specialized translator, former coordinator of the above mentioned Collection ‘Nautilus’ (Nemira) and, in fact, one of those ‘name-fronteer’ we so much need in the ‘yard’ of professionalism. Now, under the aegis of ‘Epsilon’, the reader can find editions in Romanian from: the anthology Nebula 2011 (editor Kevin J. Anderson, known for his writings in the universes Dune, Star War, X Files etc.), The Chronoliths (by Robert Charles Wilson, considered by Stephen King to be, probably, the best current SF author), Milennium (by John Varley, screened in 1989 starring Kris Kristofferson), The Prefect (by Alastair Reynolds, details below), The Sparrow (by Mary Doria Russell, a book appreciated especially by John Clute), Eon (by Greg Bear, author who wrote also in the universe of the Asimov’s Foundation, this book is compared by the critics with Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke), The Lathe of Heaven (by Ursula K. Le Guin, the author who needs no introduction since Earthsea), the anthology Nebula 2012, World War Z (by Max Brooks – son of Mel Brooks and Anna Brancroft –, a novel screened in 2013 starring Brad Pitt), Jack Glass (by Adam Roberts), the anthology Dangerous visions (editor Harlan Ellison, also known for the advice in the field of creation ensured to the series Babylon 5, among great names in the anthology there are also Robert Bloch, Brian W. Aldiss, Norman Spinrad, Frederick Pohl), the anthology Nebula 2013.

From the titles above, we chose for our column to present The Prefect (we have to mention that Alastair Reynolds was translated in Romanian – an excellent volume, Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days – at the Publishing House Nemira, 2008; but on this on another occasion). The choice was due first of all to the fact that the British author who wrote the book under question is, in my opinion one of the few contemporary writers able to create ‘live’ works such as ‘the classics’’, they were no doubt, to become themselves ‘classic’ (among other high-caliber ‘active’ names, I remind first of all Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Michael Stackpole, Joe Abercrombie, M. John Harrison and Graham Joyce, now that we lost, for example, Michael Crichton and Robert Holdstock). The second reason is related to the fact that we deal with a dark SF, many times with neogothic tangents, ‘horror’, Lovecraft style, inciting spatial Odyssey and a humanist-social SF at the same time, with a scientific ‘hard’ core, realistic, based on the author’s education (PhD in astronomy, worked until 2004 for the European Space Agency – Centre of Research and Technology).

Independent novel, The Prefect places its action (like in Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days) within the series of Revelation Space, a technologically advanced universe, dominated by different civilizations. The Glitter Band, the basis of the human civilization, is composed of thousands of orbital habitats having in its center the planet Yellowstone. Each habitat (and all together) is an absolute democracy, because all the decisions are taken by the vote of all the citizens – so that even Tyranny can be voted and implemented democratically, in the habitats where they are eager enough to this regard…there is a force of order and inquisition composed of ‘prefects’ of different categories and named generally ‘Panoply’ that is responsible to watch over this absolute democracy.

The action of the book is following more narrative threads destined to meet – and here it must be observed also Reynolds’mastery who, unlike other writers, does not choose to combine the intrigues following a fixed criterium, an objective (‘textbook interchange’, of the type: a chapter dedicated to character ‘X’, a chapter dedicated to  character ‘Y’, then, again, a chapter dedicated to character ‘X’ etc.), but he succeeds the scenes according to the needs of the story (sometimes more chapters ‘go by’ before they come back at a character, sometimes we see the perspective of more characters within the same chapter), in this way it avoids the monotony, as well as the artificial fragmentation of the action.

One of the narrative threads mentioned aims at the prefect Thalia Ng, the daughter of a traitor anathematized by the organization, eager to wash the stained honour of the family or, perhaps, she herself is a traitor, as the reader is going to find out. Initially in a routine mision, Thalia faces something much worse, she is going to fight together with the last survivors of a peaciful habitat, in a desperate attempt to save at least a few lives and to make known precious information to the Panoply.

In another direction of the story, Thalia’s direct superior, the prefect Tom Dreyfus, investigates the total destruction of a habitat, possibly by the ultranauts (human beings who, for a better functionning of their bodies, decided to replace or to improve parts of the body or organs with machineries). Together with his deputy, the hyperpig Sparver (‘hyperpigs’ are pigs modified genetically and humanized, a target of the discriminations because of its origin and features), Dreyfus convinces himself that ultranautes are not behind the genocide, but a much dangerous force decided to take possession of the Glitter Band, using slaughter, treason and terror as main weapons. Things get to evolve badly inside Panoply, especially after Dreyfus receives vital information from the aggregate cannibal prisoner (‘aggregated’ are a group dedicated to mind power and collective intelligence). The information in case lead the prefect not only to a present treason that exposes him to a formidable danger, but also to a bloody past related to an old enemy, a mysterious and cruel entity known as the ‘Clockmaker’…

Finally, a third important storyline (in bookish Poe-’Dowell’ style) is focused on the supreme prefect Jane Aumonier, a victim of the ‘Clockmaker’ years ago, presently prisoner of an artifact made by him and, at the same time, target of the fights for power inside the Panoply. In a case of perfect crisis, the doubt but also the ambition come out the easiest, and the ‘clock’ fixed inevitably on the prefect’s neck started to tick its inexorable outcome…

Stellar conflicts, negotiations, diplomacy, investigation, ‘black’ elements and suspense, ‘technological ghosts’ and rebellious machines, difficult and controversial decisions, duty and honor, indifference and humanism, scientific progress and spiritual downfall – you can find it all in The Prefect (stylishly and graphically illustrated by Ionuț Bănuţă). The translation of Mihai-Dan Pavelescu is, as usual, outstanding and the editing is above average. We recommend The Prefect as one of the best ‘science fiction’ books now available on the market and expect new ‘Reynolds’ experiences in the future, either from Trei Publishing House or Nemira Publishing House.

Dark SF at Trei Publishing House (Alastair Reynolds: The Prefect)

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