What I'm Reading #72 - Pushing Ice

Pushing Ice is basically Alastair Reynolds' attempt to take the sequels to Rendezvous with Rama, scratch off the serial numbers, and rewrite them so that they don't suck as much.

In this, he succeeds. Although, honestly, that's a pretty low bar to clear.

Warning: The spoilers in this reaction will contain deeper spoilers than most of my reactions. In general, I follow a policy of not spoiling content beyond the first 50 pages of the book. That will not be the case with Pushing Ice.

Isolating the strengths and weaknesses of the book is actually rather challenging. Reynolds lacks consistency throughout his narrative, often soaring to compelling heights only to crash back to mediocre depths.

For example, as a re-imagining of the Rama milieu, the first challenge for Pushing Ice is the creation of the Big Dumb Object (BDO). The initial conceptual strokes of the BDO are absolutely riveting: Without any warning, Janus -- one of the icy moons of Saturn -- suddenly starts accelerating out of the solar system. Unbeknownst to any of us, the entire moon had been masquerading as a spaceship for countless eons.

But when the main characters actually reach the BDO, the details are shoddy and underdeveloped. Reynolds paints with a broad and unfocused brush: We're told repeatedly how "strange" and "enigmatical" Janus is, but we're never shown any of the details necessary to really bring the place to life.

But then Reynolds turns it around again: The first BDO leads them to an even bigger BDO, and that BDO -- and the larger mechanism it's part of -- is really fascinating. And the revelations of its true nature are not only continued until the end of the book, but beyond it (as I believe Reynolds is subtly hinting at something that even his own characters don't realize).

One of the areas where Pushing Ice dramatically improves on the Rama sequels are the interpersonal dramas of the main characters. To put it succinctly: Instead of being derived from cheesy soap operas, they're truthful and meaningful.

Even here, however, Reynolds has consistency problems. For example, the central drama of the novel revolves around the schisming friendship of Bella and Svetlana. Reynolds is attempting to create a dynamic in which two people can both vehemently disagree with each other and both be right from their own point of view.

And if he had actually pulled it off (as he comes tantalizingly close to doing), the result would be absolutely breathtaking.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work. Largely because he resorts to both protagonists being inexplicably idiotic.

Sittuation #1:

SVETLANA: I think the company is hacking into our computer systems and altering the data. But I found a backup that they forgot to change. Here it is.
BELLA: Okay, I have my doubts. So what I'm going to do is tell the corporation exactly where the backup data is that you're claiming they forgot to change is. Then I'll wait awhile. Then I'll go and check it to see if it says what you claim it says.

SVETLANA: Wait... what?

BELLA: My god! It no longer says what you claim it said! You're lying to me!

Okay. That's pretty bad. But it gets worse.

Situation #2:

BELLA: I've decided that you were right all along. Now that I believe you, I'm using the true version of the data that you brought to me to conclude that our only possible course of action is X.
SVETLANA: Well, I hate you. And so I think we should do not-X!

BELLA: You mean the course of action which, if you weren't lying to me before, would mean our inevitable death?


And silliness ensues.

I mean, I'm obviously supposed to take it all seriously. But when you set up this Titanic Clash of Wills(TM) in which both characters are mentally deficient... well, it's a little hard to take them seriously.

The end result of all this is a book which I found both compelling and frustrating in almost equal measures. It was a book that could both keep me up into the wee hours of the morning frantically turning pages, and simultaneously a book that would leave me slamming the covers shut in disgust.

In the final analysis, Pushing Ice is a thoroughly mediocre book that could have been (and should have been) great. This puts it one step up the rung from the dreadful Rama sequels (which are thoroughly awful books that could have been great), but there's still too much dross to dig through to find the good bits (which are, at times, very, very good).


Author: Alastair Reynolds
Published: 2006
Publisher: Ace
Cover Price: $8.99


Pushing Ice - Alastair Reynolds

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