On today’s menu, some more “hard” science fiction, this time from a British writer (interestingly enough, the best British sci fi writers these days seem to stem from the edges of the United Kingdom – though while Banks, McLeod and Stross all come from Scotland, Reynolds apparently is a Welshman).
Alastair Reynolds, Pushing Ice
Not unlike Greg Egan, whose Diaspora I was reading recently, Reynolds likes to think and write on a grand scale, the scope of his novels often encompassing entire galaxies and thousands of years. Unlike Egan, however, Reynolds still attempts to tell a story, and one that involves characters that are recognizably human (however far they might have evolved from their origins). He does not always succeed in either (in fact, he has specific recurrent problems both with characterisation and narrative structure, but I’ll come to that later), but for all his flaws his novels and stories are among the most fascinating reads in current science fiction.
All of Reynold’s novels before this one consist of parallel narrative threads that appear unconnected at first, but then interweave as the story progresses. Pushing Ice departs from that model, though it does contain a rudimentary version of it, in the form of the prologue that takes place several thousands years after the start of the novel’s action and ends on a cliffhanger that only gets resolved several hundred pages later. This is quite a deft maneuvre, as it keeps the reader’s interests up, while the plot proper of Pushing Ice starts out rather unassumingly, with the crew of the spaceship Rockhopper mining the asteroid belt in the year 2057. However, they are soon called away from that task and sent in pursuit of the Saturn moon Janus that has suddenly decided to shed most of it’s ice crust and leave its orbit, bound on leaving the solar system behind.
To everyone who read Rendezvous with Rama or any similar novel, the errant moon of course has “Big Dumb Object” written all over it, and so it comes as not much of a surprise when the Rockhopper’s crew find themselves stranded on what is quite obviously an alien artifact. This is only the beginning of their voyage, though, and it will take them over vast distances, into a far away future, and into an encounter with two alien races that are among the most credibly alien I have encountered in any work of science fiction this side of Solaris (which in it depiction of an utterly alien intelligence is still the standard everything else will have to measure up to). And Reynolds unfolds an impressive array of ideas in front of reader, wrapped in a story that for the most part is for the most a part an absolute page-turner.
The humans’ struggle for survival in an alien environment serves as background for the novel’s central conflict between the Rockhopper’s captain Bella Lind and her former friend and later adversary Svetlana Borghesian, and at the same time is at its core, in so far as both women vie for leadership of what becomes effectively a human colony on Janus. In earlier novels by this author, it was all too obvious that the protagonists’ characters were subservient to the needs of the plot, and while Pushing Ice still is not quite free of that, in particular where Reynolds’ treatment of minor characters is concerned, he does overall a pretty convincing job with Bella and Svetlana, making the plot character-driven rather than the other way around.
On the downside, it appeared to me that his writing style – which in its best moments has a sort of dark glint to it, a black sleekness Reynolds often ascribes to the machinery featuring in his novels – is overall rather more bland than usual in this one. Also, he does not manage quite as well with his other recurring weakness – his apparant incapability (or is it unwillingness?) to bring any of his novels to a satisfying conclusion. Pushing Ice is not as frustrating as Absolution Gap in this respect, but when the humans finally leave Janus after an action-packed finale, the novel ends with pretty much nothing resolved.
But even though I couldn’t help gritting my teeth at the disappointing ending, everything considered it was an enjoyable and in parts mind-boggling ride – and there’s still The Prefect and House of Suns, both of which I have not read yet, plus two story collections that are also on my to-be-read-some-time-soon shelf.