Saturday 17 March 2012

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds' first novel, Revelation Space, was published in 2000, since when there have been nine others plus various shorter fiction, much of it published in collections. They might be regarded as traditional, optimistic, hard SF; all (as far as I can judge) set in far futures in which humanity has not only survived but has expanded into space. They are heavily science-based, reflecting the author's background as a physicist and astronomer.

I read his first three novels, all in the Revelation Space series, when they first came out and was sufficiently impressed to keep them for a re-read sometime. I found them intriguing and plausible but also long, dense and rather heavy going - not exactly page-turners. Perhaps that's why he dropped off my reading radar until recently, when his 2005 novel Pushing Ice was selected as one of the monthly reads of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group (which picks one classic and one modern SF novel per month, as well as a weekly short story).

Pushing Ice is a stand-alone novel unrelated to his other books. After a prologue set eighteen thousand years into the future, the story proper starts in 2057, (the near future by Reynolds' standards) on board Rockhopper, a commercial space vessel under the command of Bella Lind, which is mining comets in the Solar System. Suddenly Janus, one of Saturn's ice moons, leaves its orbit and begins to accelerate towards a distant star. It soon becomes apparent, as much of Janus' ice cover falls away, that it is really a gigantic spaceship. Rockhopper is the only ship near enough to intercept, so is despatched in pursuit. So far, the plot is strongly reminiscent of Clarke's classic Rendezvous with Rama but, unlike that novel, the landing on and exploration of the alien craft is only the start of a much longer saga. I can't give more plot details without posting important spoilers but suffice to say that the story stretches into the far future and is ambitious in scope, involving alien races and the future of humanity.

As usual with this author, the story is very long (over 500 pages of a rather small font) and densely packed. Other differences from Rama are that there is a strong emphasis on developing the major characters on board Rockhopper as they start their great adventure, as well as on the dilemmas and disagreements they face, and in particular a friendship which turns into bitter emnity between two of the principal characters. The result of this is that the pace of events is slow for much of the book, and at times my interest in discovering what was going to happen next was only just enough to keep me picking up the book to read some more. It wasn't helped by the occasional insertion of gaps of years or even decades in the narrative. Fortunately, the pace then begins to accelerate and I found that I read the last quarter of the book in one session stretching into the night, unable to put it down.

To sum up: an impressive achievement, definitely worth reading, but initially a degree of patience is required. I would have preferred to see a brisker pace from the start.

1 comment:

Fred said...

Thanks for the review. Alastair Reynolds hasn't crossed my path until now. I shall look around for him.