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Pushing Ice
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz, 458 pages

Pushing Ice
Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds was born in 1966 in Barry, South Wales. He spent his early years in Cornwall, moved back to Wales and on to university in Newcastle, doing Physics and Astronomy. Then it was on to a PhD in St Andrews, Scotland. In 1991, he moved to Holland, where he met his partner Josette, and worked as ESA Research Fellow before his post-doctoral work at Utrecht University.

Alastair Reynolds Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Century Rain
SF Site Review: Century Rain
SF Site Review: Absolution Gap
SF Site Review: Turquoise Days
SF Site Review: Redemption Ark
SF Site Review: Revelation Space
SF Site Review: Chasm City
SF Site Review: Revelation Space

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

My guess is that just about any review of a novel by Alastair Reynolds can't avoid referring to it as "space opera" -- and, having just used it, neither can I. His latest, Pushing Ice, certainly rounds up all the usual suspects of the genre -- a band of hearty interstellar travelers, silly-looking aliens with cryptic motivations, scientific exposition that tends to make for creaky dialogue, dialogue that is creaky even without the physics lessons, plot points that don't stand up to close scrutiny. The overall theme is the trope of first contact, and on the surface level as an adventure story of human and alien conflict (and reconciliation), it's okay. Where this transcends the average ho-hum space opera (and this is something reviewers of Reynolds' work also typically say -- sorry, but it can't be avoided), is the über-text (which I suspect is not a term ordinarily used, so one out of three isn't too bad) that contemplates the incomprehensible immensity of the universe and the relative insignificant presence -- yet nevertheless unique fact -- of human existence.

The basic plot: a crew of commercial "space divers" recovers water-rich ice comets that are "pushed back" to the inner worlds for mining. Hence the title. However, other than as a symbol of the psychology of the crew -- unrelenting in the face of enormous and coldly indifferent obstacles, with perhaps a tip of the hat to Albert Camus's Sisyphus -- the story doesn't focus on this activity. Rather, one of Saturn's moons, Janus (named after the two-faced Roman god who presided over gates and doorways, symbolizing beginning and ends and the transition between primitive and civilized life, another apt metaphor for the novel's subject), is moving out of orbit and behaving like an alien spacecraft. Company mining ship Rockhopper is the only vessel close enough to intercept for an intelligence mission. Trouble is, the company owner isn't telling all he knows about Rockhopper's ability to return home. Determining the best response to arising emergencies pits ship captain Bella Lind against her friend and ship's engineer Svetlana Barseghian. Stuck in an Einsteinian warp in which time passes slower for the crew than "real-time" on Earth, the balance of power shifts back and forth between the two women, who become irreconcilable, and a bit bitchy, in the struggle for power (so in addition to space opera, you get soap opera).

Framing all this is an envoy from the far-distant future who we know from the opening chapter views Captain Lind as the benefactor of humankind that has colonized the galaxies. Exactly how Lind comes to fulfill that role is the novel's payoff. However, even what turns out to be a key event in human expansion to the stars is contextualized by the coda provided by musician Nick Cave, "Stars have their moment, and then they die." In that respect, Pushing Ice reminded me of fellow Brit and hard SF guy Stephen Baxter, whose Evolution deals with a similar theme in a much different way. The difference is that Reynolds is much more entertaining and, in the end, more hopeful, even while recognizing the underlying pessimistic nature of an inexplicable universe.

Copyright © 2006 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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