Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

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Book Information  
AuthorAlastair Reynolds
TitlePushing Ice
GenreScience Fiction
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by WhiteWolf 
(Jun 29, 2008)

In 1968, Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and in doing so invented a sub-genre within science fiction that we have come to know as "The Big Dumb Object."

Also known as a "BDO," it is essentially the massive and mysterious object of alien or otherwise unknown origin, the SF MacGuffin that the story revolves around or is otherwise chiefly concerned with. In Clarke's story, the BDO is a large crystal mololith that appears first in prehistoric Africa, and then again in 2001 near Jupiter. It is postulated that the monolith's presence was responsible for kick-starting the next level of human evolution.

Clarke later updated the genre with his novel RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. In both instances, the BDO's true purpose and origin remains a mystery, even though investigation in the latter book reveals more detail. It was only through sequels written with author Gentry Lee that Clarke began to explore the truth behing the BDO.

Just as Stephen King once wrote in his collection of stories EVERYTHING'S EVENTUAL that every horror writer should attempt to write a "spooky room at the inn" or haunted house story, it could also be said that writers of classically-styled or more modern stories of epic space opera should also have a go at The Big Dumb Object. Alastair Reynolds, being one such SF author, has offered his version with PUSHING ICE.

The strength of these stories, if they are to have any strengths at all, are usually found in the depth of character, their motivations, reactions, and relationships as they deal with the BDO. PUSHING ICE is no exception. However, it manages to act much more in the way the Gentry Lee co-authored sequels to RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA than the first book, by taking the long view, over the course of many many years, and how those characters and relationships either change or stay the same in a very isolated and sometimes dangerous environment.

As it happens, the novel's characters are split evenly over a rift between two strongly assertive female figureheads, the ship's captain Bella Lind, and the cheif engineer Svetlana Barsegian. The two are friends at the start of the book, even close friends, but when a disagreement about how to approach the rapidly accelerating moon Janus cuts the Rockhopper and its crew off from any hope of rescue, Barsegian seizes control and places Lind in isolation.

What follows, as the crew is stranded on the moon and moving at relativistic speeds to an unknown destination, is a series of events that define the power struggle between these two women. What may seem trivial at first becomes nearly detrimental to the fate of the entire community of Janus as it approaches its goal. Without giving too much away, PUSHING ICE migrates from a classic example of the BDO story to a creative first-contact story, never straying too far from the hardcore principles of physics-based SF, but pressing the limits of imaginative xeno-discovery and an examination of humanity as well.

Which is not to say that "hard-SF" fans will be turned away by elements that are too unreal, or that fans of more fantastic SF will be dragged down by the more technical and scientific brands of the genre. What PUSHING ICE accomplishes so well, apart from the excellent portrayal over the many decades that take a look at the Barsegian-Lind conflict, is the excellent blend of the two competing sub-genres of science fiction. I could expound on the possibility of the two conflicts being linked at a deeper and more cognizant level than Reynolds actually implies at any point during the novel, but I think it would be better left to those more critical of genre's many growing and changing apects. PUSHING ICE is pure enjoyment of SF, for anyone who has had even the most vague experience in reading it, to those who deliberate over the merits of those writers who attempt to share in the glory of the Big Writers who came before.

Arthur C. Clarke comes to mind.

Reynolds isn't satisfied to rest on the laurels of other writers, mind you. He does take a pretty big gamble, right from the very first page.

A casual reader will begin the book expecting detailed introductory chapters describing the mechanics of comet-mining or the operations aboard a nuclear-powered spacecraft in not-too-distant 2057. But what you get instead is a prologue in a future thousands of years down the timeline of history, characters and subjects seemingly unrelated to anything from the back-cover blurb. And then, before beginning the first chapter and covering the ground you already expected, Reynolds drops an enigmatic reference to those events in describing Bella Lind as "The Benefactor," still alive and still travelling out there at near light speed.

With everything else going on through the course of events in PUSHING ICE, because of that one short prologue and its few vague hints at the rest of the book, you are left wondering, and guessing, and thinking that you know what is going on until you realize you don't know at all. And so it is with that prologue that Reynolds sets a trap, or maybe even a caveat MacGuffin of his own, to be unwrapped and revealed at just the right time. But still, that prologue changed the reading experience of the entire book, and I couldn't help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it as much or been any less annoyed at the same time if Reynolds hadn't included it at all. But of course, once finished, I knew he had to do it.

He certainly could have improved the ending, but then again Reynold's has endured his fair share of criticism for sloppy or open-ended conclusions before (see the ironically titled ABSOLUTION GAP). It is because of this that I have to hope, in some collection of stories or even in another full-length novel, Reynolds will find his way around to publishing a proper and satisfying ending. But for books like PUSHING ICE, the ending can never be seen as an actual conclusion anyway, because a story like this is always more of a beginning. In this case, PUSHING ICE is fun, surprising, intelligent, and always enjoyable.

I should point out that I never really did like those Gentry Lee sequels to RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA, and I never even finshed reading RAMA REVEALED. But PUSHING ICE more than makes up for it.

Submitted by Karen Burnham 
(Feb 04, 2006)

"Pushing Ice" tells the tale of a ship and its crew, originally meant to be harvesting comets, instead pulled along by an alien artifact to destinations and times unknown. The central relationship in the book is that of two women; acting captain Bella Lind and chief engineer Svetlana Barseghian. As the ship and its crew advance into the unknown, their relationship, both good and bad (and completely non-romantic) will define the future of the crew.

This book is well written, and where it is SF it is great, although there are a few plot holes that Mr. Reynolds left in there. However, there aren't many and they are easy to overlook/forgive. However, in the human interaction side of the story, things seem very forced and melodramatic, not particularly believable. Certain things tie up too neatly, and some characters behave too predictably.

Overall this is an enjoyable book, but unlike many of the reviews I read, I would describe it as "not all that and a bag of chips."

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