Pushing Ice, Alastair Reynolds

<em class="BookTitle">Pushing Ice</em>, Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2005, 457 pages, £14.99 hc, ISBN 0-575-07438-8

My traditional objections to Alastair Reynolds’ fiction have been twofold: First, too many of his novels take place in a single future history that gets increasingly less interesting. Second; far too many of his books are overwritten to the point of tediousness. The rest of his work is pretty good, but endless Inhibitors stories still make up more than half of his bibliography. Fortunately, his most recent books have taken steps against the issue, either tackling new futures, or coming in under 350 pages. Pushing Ice is halfway OK: It’s still far too long, but at least it offers something new. Not coincidentally, it’s almost the best thing that Reynolds has written so far.

It starts twice in ten pages: first, in a distant future where humanity has conquered hundreds of solars systems. Then, again, in 2057 as a plucky crew of comet-mining operatives is hired to go and check out Janus as it runs away from Jupiter. But accidents keep happening, and before we know it the crew of the Rockhopper crash-lands on Janus as it accelerates away from the Solar System. From near-future hard-SF, Pushing Ice turns into a high-tech Robinsonade, then other even stranger configurations as relativistic effects take hold. The structure of the novel is such that the prologue ends up not merely being a framing device, but a plot arrow whose impact is felt two-thirds of the way through.

For experienced SF readers, one of the best things about Pushing Ice is the way it pushes through the future, taking us from a relatively conventional hard-SF setting of blue-collar space work to the exotic weirdness of a far future shared with a variety of alien species. The structure of the story is such that there are quite a few chills in recognizing future technology delivered, almost as an afterthought, within the hands of human characters still recognizably like us.

That set of characters is uneven, but they have their moments of infighting. Decisions made by characters in position of power have consequences that go beyond immediate repercussions: Over and over again, the Rockhopper crew reacts, takes sides and argues about their fate, trying to survive despite what they receive as leadership failures. The novel eventually switches focus entirely as one character is taken out of service and replaced by another. Bit players come and go, sometimes in fairly gruesome fashion: Reynolds has never been known as a particularly light writer, and if Pushing Ice isn’t as relentlessly gloomy as his other work, it’s still heavy-going at times, pulling plot dynamics out of interpersonal clashes and the cyclical nature of entire civilizations. Betrayals happen so often that it’s a wonder anyone trust each other by the end of the story. (…and they don’t entirely do.)

Where Pushing Ice could have been better is in tightening up the screws: There’s a tremendous amount of nothing-happening within these near-500 pages, and the well-worn nature of Reynold’s ideas (big, but hardly innovative) are such that the novel could have been written in more or less the same way at any point during the past thirty years: But Pushing Ice as published in the 1980s would have been considerably shorter, and the pace would have accelerated through the story, not dawdled along unevenly like it does so often here.

But Pushing Ice does manage to make me more receptive to Reynolds’ most recent and upcoming novels. (Much as his short-story collection Zima Blue proved that he was at his best when writing shorter fiction not set in the Inhibitors universe.) I’m not going to give up on the Reynolds two-strike rule, but as soon as something either short or standalone comes up, I’ll let you know.

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