Pushing Ice

Pushing Ice (2006) by Alastair Reynolds. Easton Press, 464 Pages.

This is a great “hard science fiction” novel that evokes the best works of Arthur C. Clarke.

I love it when I find an undiscovered gem on my shelves. I got this copy of Pushing Ice about a year ago through an Easton Press subscription, and stuck it up on a shelf to be perused later. And then I forgot all about it. A few weeks ago, during my decades-delayed library organization project, I came across the book and pulled off the shrink wrap. I read the description… it sounded interesting,… so I started reading it that night.

And couldn’t put it down. I stayed up until 3 in the morning three nights in a row. This is an extremely well-written, fast paced novel of space exploration and first alien contact that really moves. It’s very gripping, and each evening I just had to reach the end of the next “Part” of the book.

The novel starts in 2057 (hey! I would be 95 if I’m still alive by then!), aboard a comet-mining vessel. During a relatively routine comet capture and mining mission, they get an urgent message: One of the moons of Saturn has suddenly left its orbit and is accelerating at a rapid rate, leaving the solar system. As the closest ship, they are asked to drop their mining stake and rendezvous with the “moon”, which is now revealed to be a huge alien spaceship. The captain at first is reluctant; as she says, “We push ice. That’s what we do”. They’re unionized miners, not explorers.

But when a huge financial reward is dangled in front of them, the majority of the ship’s crew vote to chase after the speeding alien craft. And that’s the start of a wild ride. As the ship catches up with the alien vessel, they are caught in a field surrounding it, and are pulled along as the ship accelerates at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, heading for a star over 200 light years away. They have no choice but to go along and make the best they can of it. And so they must explore the alien ship that will serve as their home for many years, and figure out how to survive. But that’s just the beginning…

Unlike a lot of hard science fiction, I found that I cared about the actual people in the story. I shook my head over their poor decisions, mourned the deaths, and reveled as the true nature of the craft and its destination were revealed. I hesitate to characterize this as “space opera”, since everything that transpires in the story is grounded in real, actual science (the author is a former European Space Agency scientist), but it’s so grand and epic in scope that I don’t know how else to describe it.

It’s not a perfect novel. Bella, the captain, and her chief engineer Svetlana are the main characters. Best friends at the start of the novel, they become sworn enemies and worse as the story progresses. As much as I liked their characters, I just couldn’t buy the extreme choices they make by the end of the novel – especially the decision of Svetlana in regards to the “Musk Dogs” I get it: they’re arch enemies. But I found it extremely difficult to believe that Svetlana would do such an extreme thing, with such obvious terrible consequences for everyone, just because she’s on the outs with Bella. Her decision simply does not fit with the methodical nature of her character.

I also have to say that I find the plot and the characters extremely similar to Arthur C. Clarke‘s Rama II and its initial sequel, The Garden of Rama. The same storyline in regards to a huge alien vessel, and being trapped inside it as it leaves the solar system. The same character development of the female captain/leader being brought down by her crew, sentenced into a crippling exile, and then later being restored. The same “big reveal” at the end (well, that actually happened in Clarke’s final book of the series, Rama Revealed) with cosmic implications.

But “not perfect” is really the worst I can say. This really is a fantastic read, and well worth your time. I liked it so much I’m now going to be hunting down Reynold’s other books, in the hope that they will turn out to be as entertaining as Pushing Ice. If you enjoy science fiction that’s epic in scope and yet still has the ring of reality, check this one out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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