Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pushing Ice - Alastair Reynolds

A new year, that means new year's concert by the Wiener Philharmoniker, ski jumping in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and an Alastair Reynolds review on Random Comments (for no other reason than that I say so). I'm afraid I missed the first two (anybody know who won the ski jumping?) but I thought I'd make it one out of three at least. Pushing Ice (2005) is a standalone novel. It is not set in the Revelation Space universe and as far as I can tell it is not related to any of his other works either. On his website (see FAQ), Reynolds mentions that there may one day be a sequel though. The universe may not be familiar to the reader, it is space opera on an intimidating scale. Fans of the Revelation Space novels, will recognize a lot of those books in Pushing Ice. Unfortunately, I don't think this novel gets close to the best the Revelation Space universe has to offer.

The year is 2057 and humanity has escaped the Earth's gravity well. The outer planets and asteroid belt are frequently visited by mining ships, of which the Rockhopper is one. When Saturn's moon Janus inexplicably leaves orbit and heads out of the solar system in the direction of Spica, a star in the constellation Virgo, the Rockhopper is the only ship close enough to have any chance of intercepting the moon. Their fuel situation is precarious however, they might have enough for the return trip but it'll be tight. The crew has to make a difficult decision. Seize the chance of a lifetime to explore what can only be an alien artefact, or play it safe and return home. The majority of the crew feels the chance cannot be wasted and the Rockhopper sets out on a journey that will take them far beyond their wildest expectations.

Especially early on in the novel, the story is very technical. It's clearly influenced by Arthur C. Clarke and goes into detail about such matters as propulsion, fusion engines and data traffic over vast distances. A bit later on relativistic effects also make an appearance. One thing that doesn't get explained, or maybe I just missed it, is the sustained 5G acceleration the Rockhopper experiences in the wake of Janus. The way they find out about is is very ingenious but what happened to inertia is unclear to me. The technical side of this novel has many existing scientific theories behind it. You can't just treat is like Star Trek techno babble and that makes it an interesting novel for a hard science fiction fan. In other novels Reynolds mixes in elements of Noir, (Century Rain and The Prefect) or Steampunk (Terminal World, a novel I have yet to read). Not in this book, it is pretty much uncut (new) Space Opera.

It has to be said, there is more than a bit of soap opera in Pushing Ice. A bitter conflict between the ships captain Bela Lind and her friend, confidante and Rockhoppers chief engineer Svetlana Barseghian erupts early on in the novel and carries on throughout the entire story. I liked the way Reynolds used it to show the reader that data doesn't always reflect reality in the way we think it does early on in the novel. Later on however, sheer stubbornness takes over and both ladies do such profoundly stupid things that I wouldn't have been surprised in if Bela's evil twin sister had made an appearance. Rest assured, she doesn't.

As usual, the scope of the novel is impressive. It reaches into the far future and introduces several alien species. I guess you could say Reynolds offers another explanation for the Fermi Paradox (if the chances of intelligent life developing elsewhere in the universe are so large, why haven't we found them?), which is central to the plot of Revalation Space. By keeping strictly to the human point of view who, despite the distance they travel, remain very sheltered for most of the novel, it never develops beyond a theory though.

The limited point of view may be a bit of a let down for some readers. Where in the Revelation Space books Reynolds develops a detailed future history, the one in Pushing Ice remains very vague. Contact with the rest of humanity is lost early on and the exact location of the Rockhopper's crew is in question for a lot of the novel. The alien cultures they encounter are not that eager to divulge such information either, if they possess it themselves. Motives, histories and capabilities remain very uncertain. The universe is a dangerous place, so much is obvious, but it remains a very mysterious place as well. I guess Pushing Ice is not a book for people who like their stories neatly tied up. There is more than enough unexplored territory for the a sequel.

Pushing Ice was an entertaining read, a remarkably quick one in fact. I usually have to take my time with Reynolds. Entertaining is not the same as good though. The first half of the novel is a very interesting read read for fans of hard Science Fiction but the second part, when long term survival starts to look more likely, is overshadowed by problems with the characterization and the ever lurking danger deus ex machina at the hands of mysterious alien races. The novel simply doesn't even get close to works like Chasm City, or the more recent novella Troika. Entertaining yes, but nowhere near the best Reynolds is capable of.

Book Details
Title: Pushing Ice
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 517
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08311-0
First published: 2005


  1. I liked the big ideas, monstrous constructs and some of the alien races. I didn't mind the loose ends and unanswered questions too much but the feud between the main characters grew tiresome well before the halfway point.

  2. What surprised me most about that feud was that the rest of the crew put up with it.

  3. YES! Just reading about it irritated me. I can't imagine that any crew under those circumstances would suffer that for as long as they did.