Review of Pushing Ice (2005)

Alastair Reynolds (writer).

Read in 2020.

In 2057, comet-hunters in the outer solar system, with a fusion drive, are sent to investigate an anomalous body that appears to be accelerating out of the solar system under its own power: Janus, one of Saturn’s moons.

The three parts of this novel are almost a trilogy of short novels, mercifully compressed. The first suggests something like Alien (1979): A partly working-class crew in space gets sent on a mission way beyond what they signed up for and the corporation that sent them betrays them in a sneaky and murderous way that makes everybody paranoid. That’s the best part of the novel; every bad detail of that part is setup for the rest. The second part is an inferior Red Mars (1992) with implausible spitefulness and incompetence in place of ideological differences. The third part is Ringworld-esque space opera at Kardashev Type III scale in “extreme deep time”.

It’s not hard science fiction, veering gradually into Clarke’s-third-law territory and almost literal deus ex machina. As extrapolations go, it’s optimistic for the near term. As of 2020, ITER is expected to generate power for the first time in about 2040, and Pushing Ice has massive, 100+ crew spacefaring operations with tokamak drives just 17 years later, for ice. The cultural extrapolations, similarly, are not great, mainly just jokes about things like Finding Nemo (2003) from the intended reader’s time.

Reynolds is known for mixing good ideas with bad ones. His aliens are a lot of fun, but morally unambiguous; the bad guys’ “gristle ship” reminds me of Lensman (1984) and E. E. Smith’s originals. Judging them by their appearance turns out to be the right course of action, which is more typical of fantasy than science fiction. The ultimate revelations are OK though, as far as the few answers go.

What bothered me most about the book was the character psychology, which seems built to excuse plot holes. The prologue already makes it clear that protagonist Bella Lind will be seen as the founder of a far-future human civilization, so that’s not a spoiler. Her role as a founder turns out to be symbolic, quite like Star Trek: First Contact (1996), yet it is Lind and her chief engineer, Barseghian, who take turns ruling the colony that spills out of Rockhopper, for decades. One of the best things about Red Mars was an awareness of power in building a new society, but here, Lind is clearly just predestined to rule forever, while Barseghian is gradually recast as a Satanic figure whose rebellion against Lind is both the only challenge she ever encounters from within and an idiotically destructive transgression against Lind’s taboo. There’s not even lip service to democracy as the heroic Lind falsifies human history and withholds intelligence that might have convinced Barseghian to do better. This comes across as a brain fart of the adventure genre’s usual hero worship, but it can also be read as a deliberate statement of an authoritarian concept of the mind.

While the psychology is implausible, that’s not for a lack of trying. Reynolds’s understated feminism and Heinlein-esque cosmopolitanism show a more open and informed mind than Lucifer’s Hammer (1977). There is a deep psychological impetus that drives Lind to be so weirdly suited to leadership: It’s the lack of closure in her romance with Garrison, a character who appears only in fragmentary flashbacks. However, when Lind does eventually receive that closure, it neither changes her, nor produces a meaningful parallel with her own activities in falsification of historical data. If her lock of hair in Garrison’s hand is supposed to be yet another lie to stave off Lovecraftian cosmicism, that never becomes clear. It is narcissism, the opposite of cosmicism, that wins in the end: Lind feels reassured and lives forever as a saviour, Jesus-like in her sacrifice and resurrection from the last few ass-pulls. Better choices here would have made the book great.

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