Pushing Ice is a novel I’ve been intending to read for quite a while and after snapping up a signed copy from Forbidden Planet there seemed little reason to resist any longer. And thank heavens because it turned out to be an absolute stonker and a reading highlight of the year. I shouldn’t be surprised because Pushing Ice has it all – a fascinating premise and story, believable science and spaceships, awe inspiring locations and happenings, intriguing personalities and relationships, and unforgettable aliens, including the most unforgettable aliens I have yet to encounter in fiction.
The story is very appealing. The crew of the Rockhopper mines comets, in other words they ‘push ice’. But when they are told that Janus, one of Saturn’s moons, has escaped orbit and has set a course for a distant star system, the Rockhopper is the closest vessel with any hope of catching up with the rogue moon, if only for a few days, before returning to Earth with some kind of explanation for this phenomenon. Of course, it soon transpires that Janus is no natural moon. It is a machine. And once it has Rockhopper in its wake there is very little the crew can do to escape.
The pursuit of Janus is only one part of the novel. The other focuses on two women. Bella Lind is the captain of the Rockhopper and Svetlana Barseghian is her chief engineer as well as being Bella’s closest friend and confidante. But the decisions that Bella must make as captain – whether to try and get her crew back to Earth or to give them a new home on Janus – destroy this friendship at its core and we witness a damaging and really quite heartbreaking tug of war between these women. Power moves back and forth between the two, affecting everyone around them but mostly hurting each other.
Pushing Ice moves through the years and even the generations, describing in wonderful detail the transformation of Janus as well as the strange aliens that the humans encounter over the decades, most especially the Fountainheads and the truly revolting Musk Dogs. It is all coloured by suspicion. The humans have no idea who to trust or what to believe. What has happened to them is so extraordinary, they have no terms of reference. Thanks to the Fountainheads, even death and old age have lost their meaning: the Frost Angels are one of the many fantastic creations of this novel.
Elements of Pushing Ice reminded me of some classic science fiction moments, from Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Poul Anderson’s Tao Zero in particular, adding an extra layer of resonance. Pushing Ice, though, takes it that little bit further, showing us more of what these alien worlds are like and exploring in greater detail the impact of being out of control and pushing into the unknown on the minds and relationships of the crew.
Pushing Ice is not a short novel but its pages fly through the fingers. It is thoughtful but it is also exhilarating and thoroughly exciting (the final third did little for my blood pressure). The science is abundant and in places complex but it mixes perfectly with the human side of the story. The more I read of Alastair Reynolds (and this is the third of his novels I’ve read in 2013), the more I want to read. I can most strongly recommend Pushing Ice – a standalone novel that I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come.