Review: “Pushing Ice” by Alastair Reynolds

As someone who describes himself unabashedly as a science fiction fan, it comes as a surprise (to no one more than myself) that I’m not all that widely read in the genre. I watch it extensively on television and in movies, but when it comes to the literature I feel very much behind.

There was a time, though, when I devoured Isaac Asimov. I found a volume of his short stories at some point between the seventh and tenth grades and became fascinated. His Foundation and Robot trilogies were intriguing. And then somewhere along the way, I just never picked him up again. This may sound elitist and snobby, but I think it can be attributed to my literary tastes becoming more refined. Asimov always admitted that he never had a real talent with prose, except to make it as clear and concise and unornamented as possible. His fiction was driven by concepts rather than characters, and ideas rather than emotions. I think if I were to try and read Asimov today (and several of his books are still on my shelf), I would not be endeared to him at all.

And he’s considered one of the best science fiction writers who ever lived.

One of the reasons I don’t read a lot of true science fiction — that is to say, hard science fiction — is that as far as I can tell so many of its practitioners have followed in Asimov’s footsteps. They seem more concerned with building sentient computers than realistic characters. They give pages and pages over to lectures on physics and chemistry and biology that aren’t always necessary to understanding the plot. It’s not the science I mind, it’s the lack of storytelling.

Enter Alastair Reynolds. I first discovered him a couple years ago through his novel Revelation Space, and found a writer who understands that he’s there to tell a story. Pushing Ice isn’t the greatest book I’ve ever read, not even the greatest science fiction book I’ve ever read, nor is Reynolds the greatest author ever…but twice now I have seen him produce longer novels (they can usually come in at about five to six hundred pages) that are also page-turners.

So what turns these particular pages? Pushing Ice features the crew of the spaceship Rockhopper who normally mine comets for their frozen compounds. But one day humanity discovers it is not alone. Janus, an icy moon of Saturn, suddenly begins to move rapidly out of the solar system under its own power. With this revelation of alien intelligence existing elsewhere in the universe, the Rockhopper turns out to be the only ship in range that can intercept and study Janus before it moves into deep space. The plot develops from there in intriguing and unexpected ways that I won’t spoil. The less you know going in the better.

The plot is interesting, the science is there…and fortunately so are the characters, for the most part. Reynolds does his best to make his characters behave like real people and he largely succeeds. The spine of the book is a long-running feud between the captain of the ship, Bella Lind, and her engineer, Svetlana — with the upper hand teeter-tottering between them throughout the story. The focus is, in every chapter, the people caught up in events beyond their control; that focus never wavers for a moment. Human beings are always at the centre of everything going on.

Reynolds also seems to be a master at inspiring what I call “cosmic awe”. When encountering the truly mysterious and alien, when confronted by concepts that make it clear just how vast and complicated the universe really is, there is nothing to do but stand back and let it all chill down your spine. That is cosmic awe. Revelation Space had perhaps a stronger flavour of it, but Pushing Ice also delivers these moments effectively. From Janus itself to a strange black cube to someone flipping through photographs in the last few pages, there are enough glimpses of the extraordinary to keep you wanting more.

The book may not win a prize for the most beautiful prose, but I don’t think it needs to. Reynolds writes with a degree of elegance that Asimov never had. At the same time it’s best described as serviceable: never reaching for the heights of “real” literature (an elitist phrase, but I couldn’t find a better one at short notice) while avoiding banality. He still cares about delivering a good sentence as well as a technically competent one, and seeing things through the eyes of his characters and their reactions to it. He clearly tries to write well and he just as clearly achieves it.

Science fiction should be about more than just ideas. It should be about the people who have them and how such ideas change their lives. It should be, ultimately, like any fiction worth reading: asking questions about the human condition and genuinely exploring — instead of coldly analyzing — what it means to be alive through the art of storytelling. Alastair Reynolds is walking in the right direction.

***

I first wrote this review back in June, but didn’t publish it because I was worried that I perhaps came down too hard on the genre without giving it a fair shake. And given how I open with an admission to not reading very much of it makes the rest look a bit hypocritical. But I stand by what I wrote, with the following caveat: like any person of reasonable sanity I reserve the right to change my mind.

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2 thoughts on “Review: “Pushing Ice” by Alastair Reynolds

  1. You know, Steven, you’ve hit the nail on the head as to why I never cared for science fiction, although you said it much better than I ever could. There seemed to be a focus on technology in science fiction that didn’t really interest me and no compelling characters to make up for it. I always thought the British, as in John Wyndham, did it better than the Americans, but that’s perhaps that’s an over generalization.

    • I think I overgeneralized a bit myself as well. I have read some sci-fi that is more pleasurable to read, and which considers things beyond the technical. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, for example, completely eschews any realistic technology in favour of exploring issues of colonialism and the wonder of space travel — he uses the very unscientific word “rocketships”! A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller is also more literary. There’s a series by an author named Dan Simmons which starts with a book called Hyperion which is also interesting (though it’s been awhile since I’ve read those).

      And I have to point you in the direction of a short story called “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. Much more focus on people there. You’ll find it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1: 1929-1964.

      And I like British writers more too. 🙂

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