Pushing Ice: Stand-alone hard SF from Reynolds

Pushing Ice Kindle Edition by Alastair ReynoldsPushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds science fiction book reviewsPushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

Pushing Ice (2005) is a standalone novel. It is not set in Alastair Reynolds’ REVELATION SPACE universe and as far as I can tell it is not related to any of his other works either. On his website, Reynolds mentions that there may one day be a sequel though. Pushing Ice is space opera on an intimidating scale but, unfortunately, I don’t think it 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 Pushing Ice, 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 it is very ingenious but what happened to inertia is unclear to me. The technical side of Pushing Ice is based on real scientific theories; Reynolds knows he can’t get away with Star Trek technobabble for his hard science fiction fans. In other novels Reynolds mixes in elements of noir, (Century Rain and The Prefect) or steampunk (Terminal World). 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. Later on however, sheer stubbornness takes over and both women 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 Reynolds’ novel is impressive. It reaches into the far future and introduces several alien species. I guess you could say Reynolds even 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 REVELATION SPACE. By keeping strictly to the point of view of humans 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 letdown for some readers. Whereas 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. Pushing Ice is not a book for people who like their stories neatly tied up. There is more than enough unexplored territory for a sequel.

Pushing Ice was an entertaining read and a remarkably quick one. 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 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 of deus ex machina at the hands of mysterious alien races. Pushing Ice simply doesn’t even get close to works like Chasm City, or the novella Troika. Entertaining yes, but nowhere near the best Reynolds is capable of.

Published in 2005. 2057. Bella Lind and the crew of her nuclear-powered ship, the Rockhopper, push ice. They mine comets. But nothing can prepare them for the surprises in store when Janus, one of Saturn’s ice moons, spins out of control.

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ROB WEBER, a regular guest at FanLit, developed a fantasy and science fiction addiction as well as a worrying Wheel of Time obsession during his college years. While the Wheel of Time has turned, the reading habit that continues to haunt him long after acquiring his BSc in environmental science. Rob keeps a blog at Val’s Random Comments.

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