Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Review: Machine Vendetta by Alastair Reynolds

Gimme the straight dope, see

Machine Vendetta is the 3rd installment in Reynolds' Prefect Dreyfus series. It takes place in the broader Revelation Space universe, which Reynolds has been developing for more than twenty years. The basic conceit is that humanity has spread out across the galaxy. Unlike other space operatic settings, in this case humans are still constrained by the basic laws of physics - most notably, the speed of light. This means that each human-settled system grows and develops in unique ways; they are only connected to each other by "light-huggers," large interstellar vessels that take years to reach each destination (and so have developed cultures of their own). 

The Prefect Dreyfus series in't a trilogy in the usual sense - where you have three books in sequence, released within a short timeframe, that all tell chapters of a single story. Rather, these are more like novels in a crime series: individual stories that don't really need to be read in sequence but contain some added value for those who choose to do so. The same goes for the series writ large: you don't need to have read Revelation Space or any of the others, but having done so will make things a bit easier, as the world building is pretty complex. That said, the Prefect Dreyfus books are a solid entry point into the Revelation Space universe, so don't be put off on starting here. 

The series takes place in the Glitter Band, a series of orbital habitats that ring the planet Yellowstone (location of Reynolds' standalone novel, Chasm City). Prefects are the Marshalls keeping order across this expanse of semi-autonomous space stations. Their organization is called Panoply, and the events of the first two books in the series (Aurora Rising and Elysium Fire) involve the challenges faced by Panoply as it tries to handle two rival - and malignant - artificial intelligences. 

The Prefect Dreyfus books are hybrid space opera and police procedurals, in that the setting is space operatic but the narrative follows an investigation. This is a form of genre mashup that I've always enjoyed - ever since I read Asimov's Caves of Steel as a teenager. But it's also a tough one to pull off - I've read plenty of books in this vein where one half the equation (the procedural or the science fictional) is half-baked and riddled with worn-out tropes. But Reynolds does it masterfully in this series, leaning heavily toward the science fictional and creating detective characters that feel appropriate to that setting, rather than 1940s tough guys in space. 

The third book, Machine Vendetta, takes place in the aftermath of an apparent terrorist attack by hyperpigs (uplifted pigs) on lemurs (uplifted lemurs). The hyperpig in question is also a prefect, which is obviously bad for Panoply. Not long after, a second prefect, Ingvar Tench, arrives and goes missing on a war-torn habitat. Are the two events connected? Senior Prefect Tom Dreyfus and his protege, Thalia Ng, are sent to investigate. 

I won't get too deep into what happens, as one of the book's great pleasures is seeing how the the investigation unfolds. But I will say this: it isn't often that the plot of a procedural - including, very much, those set in our world - surprises me in a way that feels both intuitive and parsimonious. There are no moments where the detective reveals the surprise conclusion based on information unavailable to the reader; no cliched "a-ha" moments where it turns out some rando we met setting up deck chairs in chapter 2 turns out to be the villain; nor, worst of all, a convoluted conspiracy that goes "all the way to the top." There is, of course, a conspiracy - but it actually makes sense. 

The book is also quite topical, in the sense that it extrapolates many of our fears and anxieties over artificial intelligence into a far-future setting. Overall the issue is treated well, though I would have preferred for the AI to be a bit less, well, human. 

My other quibble is that the characters are all extremely uptight, which is a reflection of Panoply's organizational culture (and the fact that they select candidates based in part on cultural fit). But it gets a little tiresome when every single one is the kind of person who would agonize over the misplacement of a salad fork, then submit themselves for punishment for this grave breach of ethics. Even the rebellious characters are like this. 

This isn't the first Reynolds book I've read, nor the first I've reviewed for this site - but it is my favorite. The prose is clean and efficient, the characters interesting, the plot moves along at a brisk pace and the world-building is rich without relying on tedious exposition. It's the kind of book that begs for a second go - and has certainly reinvigorated by interest in the Revelation Space universe. Machine Vendetta is, simply put, a thoroughly enjoyable book - one I would not hesitate to recommended for adventurous readers.  



  • Crisp prose
  • Brisk plotting
  • Complex world-building that's nicely backgrounded and doesn't rely on tedious exposition
  • Could use a bit more diversity in terms of character personalities 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention." 

Reference: Reynolds, Alastair, Machine Vendetta [Orbit Books, 2023]

POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.