Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2006, £14,99
reviewed in Interzone 203, April 2006

It is easy to write hard science fiction badly. The number of tropes is limited, and so long as you put them in something like the right order youíll please a portion of your audience at least. But it is very difficult to write hard science fiction well, to make that limited number of tropes seem fresh and exciting all over again.

Alastair Reynoldsís new novel is an excellent example of how it should be done. If you are so inclined you can tick off all the familiar devices: we have been here before. The cast is composed of a hardened crew of asteroid miners. The plot is kick-started by the unexpected discovery of something alien, in this case a moon of Saturn suddenly leaves orbit and flies off towards a distant star system. Thereís the chase during which our crew is exposed to incremental perils, so that their very survival is down to human ingenuity in the most unforgiving of environments. Thereís the eventual alien contact which pitches our crew, just when they were beginning to breathe easy, into the middle of alien conflict. And finally there is the big dumb object whose scale and significance are at best only dimly perceived. All of this is familiar fare, and there is any number of hard sf hacks who could cobble those contents into a competent adventure.

Reynolds plays the same old tune, but plays it well. There are the sudden shifts in perspective that make us gasp, the new technologies so convincingly described that we are sure that laboratories are busy perfecting them even now, the hairís-breadth escapes and reversals of fortune and bitter deaths that keep any reader turning the pages. But the reason this novel stands out is that Reynolds makes the old tune sound fresh: could we be hearing it for the first time? Any author who tries to inject characters into the vast landscapes and stunning machinery of hard sf is onto a loser, but Reynolds makes it work. With broad brush strokes he gives us a series of flawed humans trying to do their best but driven by conflicting beliefs and incompletely grasped motives. We believe in these people, and despite the scale of the technology we never lose sight of their humanity. And there are mysteries throughout the book that arenít always solved in the expected manner (and sometimes they arenít solved). The characteristics of space-time mean that one way of looking at this story is that it covers several thousand years and untold light-years, yet the scale is always comprehensible, the hard sf does not drown out the adventure story.