Alastair Reynolds has produced a fine, fast-paced thriller in Machine Vendetta, the third, and apparently final novel in the Prefect Dreyfus Emergencies series. The series, set in the Revelation Space universe, specifically the Glitter Band of ten thousand habitats orbiting Yellowstone, began in 2007 with The Prefect, now called Aurora Rising. We had to wait until 2018 for Elysium Fire, and both form the background for the clash of rogue AIs that is central to Machine Vendetta. Now to be truthful, after all the years since I read the previous two novels, I didn’t remember much at all about them before plunging into Machine Vendetta. That turned out not to be a problem, since gradually all the background I needed was filled in, especially given the fact that the story begins in the midst of multiple crises that make the basic facts crystal clear from the opening.
There is big trouble in the Glitter Band, the ten thousand habitats of which are patrolled by a force of only a thousand prefects of the Panoply. A prefect who happens to be a hyperpig (an uplifted pig functioning alongside humans) has apparently betrayed his office and staged a suicide attack on one habitat. Another habitat, run by mendicants as a refuge for the ill, has just been the victim of a terrorist bombing. Now a third, investigated by Prefect Ingvar Tench, has broken out in a civil war. Tench had no intention of arriving at this habitat, but her navigation and communication systems have been surreptitiously taken over, redirecting her from her original target to this violent and dangerous place.
Meanwhile Prefect Tom Dreyfus, while visiting his recovering wife at a rehabilitation habitat, is suddenly confronted by the voice of Aurora, the rogue AI that has been plaguing the Glitter Band for years but which had gone into hiding for a while. And she speaks to him by taking over the implants in his ailing wife. She tells him that another rogue AI, known as the Clockmaker, Aurora’s fierce enemy, is trying to capture her so that he can control the Yellowstone system without opposition. Tough times indeed. Dreyfus, Jane Aumonier, the senior officer of the Panoply, Thalia Ng and other prefects have to unravel multiple mysteries to understand the depth of betrayal and AI infiltration they are facing. Dreyfus and Ng start working on clues that bring out vital facts about Aurora’s origins that might give them and Panoply a fighting chance at surviving her onslaught against them.
What I am calling AIs, the Clockmaker and Aurora, have more complex origins. Each began as a software simulation of a real person and were adapted and misused by different groups, including aliens in the case of the Clockmaker, in the earlier novels. But the way in which they evolve into twisted personalities with their own drives and plans for revenge could be taken from today’s concerns about the future of generative AI. They are called the monsters of these stories by Dreyfus and other prefects and amply demonstrate their ingenious ways of killing humans and attacking each other.
In addition to the ominous meeting with Aurora, Dreyfus has another encounter with the even more horrific Clockmaker. He meets “him” (the Clockmaker began as a simulation of a male scientist) in a strange part of Panoply called the Necropolis. This area is a storage place of simulations of dead people who are kept there for future interviews to extract useful information they possessed about dangers to the Glitter Band before their deaths. In that space, Dreyfus meets a hooded figure, whose face is concealed, but he is immediately recognized as the Clockmaker. It’s clear he can infiltrate Panoply at will, as can Aurora, and he gives Dreyfus an ultimatum to contain and destroy his rival, who is trying to do the same to him. The clash between these two formidable and monstrous AIs drives much of the story, with Panoply and the habitats of the Glitter Band the battleground of their conflict.
The story unfolds as a combination of police procedural and exciting space adventure. Reynolds has perfected a clipped style of moving stories forward at a fast pace, but that also means that characterization comes through more through action than introspection. The prefects are, after all, people devoted to their duties, even at the expense of much private life. Yet Reynolds makes every action Dreyfus and the others take flow from the people they are so that we get a rich sense of what they’re like.
For example, early in the story, Thalia Ng is examining the habitat that had been partly destroyed in an attack by a prefect whom she had known when she receives a call from a superior who challenges the reason for her re-examining evidence of a case deemed closed. She is “pincered” between anxieties, as she responds in carefully chosen words to avoid either antagonizing her superior, slighting the woman whom she had mentored or saying the wrong thing about the man who had mentored her. It’s a fine example of the constant pressure the prefects live with, compounded by fears of dealing with enemies within Panoply and the constant suspicion they face from the citizens whose worlds they are patrolling.
This is contrasted with Thalia’s experience in the habitat where she is searching for more evidence about an unimaginable attack by a prefect whose conduct had always been above reproach. This lushly forested place, inhabited by intelligent lemurs, is a beautiful natural world where the inhabitants pluck their food from trees and bushes. She samples some of the berries that are regarded as lemur delicacies and starts to feel absorbed in the sensory moment, feeling dissociated from her everyday life. She is momentarily liberated from normal pressures, though that feeling is quickly dispelled.
“It was much better to be here amid the trees, the birds and the distant singing of other family groups. They were calling from near and afar, whooping and hollering in ways that stirred ancient arboreal memories. She had been a tree-creature once, not too many moments ago by the galaxy’s reckoning. “I think I should be going,” Thalia said, before she forgot she had any sort of life beyond this drowsy present.”Machine Vendetta, ARC Kindle edition, Location 1642
Machine Vendetta is a sharply drawn and finely told mystery, and my only concern is that, according to one statement of Reynolds, it could be his last, not only in the Prefect Dreyfus series but also in the Revelation Space universe. I hope I got that wrong, or, if not, that Reynolds will return to his most fascinating and complex creation of the Glitter Band, the planet Yellowstone, Chasm City, the Conjoiners and so many more worlds and peoples.
My thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for an advance review copy of Machine Vendetta for this review, based solely on my own opinions.