All the cool kids on the SF booktube, Media Death Cult, I watch have been reading Alastair Reynolds books, so when I found one at a local charity shop, I picked it up. It happened to be Pushing Ice, one of his stand alone books. Below is my review of that book. Unlike Reynolds’ book, I won’t spoil the review in this prologue.
By Alastair Reynolds
The reviewer’s bias: I prefer stories with well developed, pleasant characters. I like writing that is clever and witty – entertaining in itself. I prefer first person narratives, or close third person narratives. I dislike thinly disguised fanfic or stories with gaping plot holes.
Pushing Ice begins with a prologue set 18,000+ years in the future – a future with thousands of human inhabited planets. A politician wants to honor the “Benefactor and her people” are who are “still out there and moving away from us,” far away, but less than 18,000 light years away. The Benefactor is Bella Lind.
The first chapter then introduces us to comet ice mining rocketship Rockhopper, the actual story set, according to the back cover blurb, in the year 2057. I am always amazed at the optimism of science fiction writers. To have nuclear powered space ships pushing around comets 52 years from the date Reynolds wrote this book is pretty damn optimistic.
The Rockhopper is captained by Bella Lind, the eventual Benefactor. As the story opens, a minor moon of of Saturn proves to have been an alien artifact by breaking free of its orbit and heading out of the solar system. Captain Lind’s Rockhopper is the only (non-Chinese) ship in position to intercept and investigate the artifact for the few days they would have before having to turn back, and only if they push their ship hard. They are tasked with the mission and agree to head out to intercept the artifact.
The prologue basically tells the reader that they succeed in intercepting and gathering enough data to eventual create an interstellar human society. And it also tells us that the Rockhopper never returns to the solar system, since it is still moving away, 18,000 years later. So the reader knows “who did it,” leaving the story to tell the “how.”
Foreshadowing is once again used several chapters in. He begins a section with the line: “No death in a spacesuit is ever good, but Mike Takahashi’s was especially bad.” And proceeds to spend the next 13 pages describing the failed rescue attempt in great detail.
Since the reader already knows that the Rockhopper will not return to the solar system, as planned, the only question is what goes amiss? As it turns out, there is an onboard accident that suggests that the fuel tanks have less fuel than what they should have according to ship sensors. How did this happen? It is suggested that the numbers were tampered with by the ship’s owners back on Earth via a software upgrade or bug fix. I can’t say for certain if this is the cause, since I did not get much farther in the book. I found that I couldn't believe this, and gave up around page 125 out of 780 pages. This may've been a red herring, but it doesn't matter, they don't return.
So why the DNF? I like character driven stories with at least a few pleasant characters. Reynolds introduces what seems like several dozen characters in the first couple of chapters in a shotgun spray of conversations laced with dense techno-minutia details and fragmented backstories. My wife will write down names of characters in books to keep them straight, but I’m not one to do that. When there are too many characters tossed at me at once, willy-nilly, I just don't care about any of them. They all tend to fall under the category devices designed to provide background info and world building rather than people. Basically, they’re interchangeable, and while they may become more distinct later on, I’m still not likely to care about them. And this criticisms includes our main protagonist, the Benefactor, Captain Bella Lind.
While Bella is presented sympathetically, I felt that she was not in the story enough at this point to anchor the narrative. First, she’s in and out of it, with all the other bit players speaking their parts, often on tangents (at least in the first hundred twenty plus pages of the story). Secondly, Reynolds has her do something that doesn’t seem in character, no doubt in order to set up a conflict. After that accident aboard ship, on day 11, Chapter 4, Bella’s best friend aboard the ship is the person who discovers the apparent discrepancy between what the fuel data says now and what it said before it was altered. Bella doesn’t entirely believe her and contacts the managers of the mission on Earth regarding the discrepancy – who, of course, deny it is possible, and suggest that the person reporting it has gone off the deep end. To check on it herself, she and the corporate guy who is second in command, go down to the section of the ship to collect this data themselves – while Bella’s best friend is sleeping. As the captain of the ship, there is no reason why they needed to do this behind her back. The captain would have every right to investigate the issue herself when her friend was on duty. Indeed, you would expect a captain to do just that. The only reason for witting this scene this way was to set up a conflict. This was the part that sent my book flying, if not across the room and into the wall, but across the table next to me. I found that I couldn’t like any of these people and didn’t care what happened to them.
Reynolds is an astro-physicist who writes like one. His writing is very dense. It is nondescript in the sense that it doesn’t get in the way of the story, save that all the techno-minutia and snippets of dialog between lots of characters make for slow going. He is very interested in both tech and big sweeping ideas. He seems to use people as talking points, like many classic SF writers did. Now on one hand, all this techno-info may serve to build his world, but on the other, because the characters are pretty nondescript at this point, I found myself thinking “Who cares?" get on with the story." To that end, I found myself constantly skim reading. In short, it’s slow, heavy, unengaging reading for a reader like me. Your mileage, will, of course, vary.
So, to sum it up for me – I felt that Reynolds' use of foreshadowing diminished not only the suspense of the story, but my desire to push on, knowing how it ultimately ends. "Mind blowing" ideas and revelations are not my cup of tea, I simply didn't care what they will find on the artifact. There were no characters that I liked. I felt that he was setting up a lot of conflict within the crew which would make unpleasant reading for a reader like me. I didn’t believe for a minute that the managers on Earth could add 16% more fuel to the ship's log without someone onboard noting the change in readings. Not to mention that fact that the people on Earth could ruthlessly send the ship and people on a mission that they knew was a suicide one. In short, a lot of unpleasantness.
Goodbye, Alastair Reynolds, it’s on to D E Stevenson’s The Two Mrs. Abotts.