Sunday, February 08, 2009

BOOKS: Review- Pushing Ice

If I can't have a SF Mystery, my favourite kind of book, a good Hard SF tome is a very nice thing to have instead, right up there with light comedic detective stories. Today, the topic du jour is Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds.

First off, I recommend the book. But that's because Reynolds displays a Clarkean flare combined with a bit of E.E. 'Doc' Smith panache to top it off. It is an idea book featuring a BIG OBJECT, a la Arthur C. Clarke, and we also get a bit of galaxy spanning with some quite clever nasties at the end. And, like Clarke, we don't necessarily get the conclusion we crave for.

The book really does fall squarely into the space opera camp. While Reynolds is dazzling us with the 'hardware' part of the story, we get an ages-spanning soap opera featuring captain Bella Lind and her best friend/worst enemy Svetlana Barseghian. The book's main point of contention in my mind, is the turning point where Svetlana turns on Bella. It's sudden, extreme and long-lasting. It's just not believable in scope. We've all had friends we cut loose for one reason or another. I once didn't talk to a bridge partner for 15 years after he tried to cover his own poor performance by bringing up the one slight (still debatable) mistake I'd made in a glorious evening of pulling my team to victory. But I've NEVER gone into a murderous rage over a mistake, a slight or even a pre-planned betrayal by somebody I've called a friend. Freeze them out, yes. Send them to the freezer, no!

At any rate, the plot of the book is a bit pedestrian. A BIG OBJECT comes to the solar system and then departs. A soon-to-be-inbound spaceship commanded by Bella is the only ship close enough to get close to the departing BIG OBJECT. The crew votes, mostly for the cash incentives, but also for a little bit of exploring the unknown, to try and tag along the BIG OBJECT (okay, time to make the big reveal, it's the thing that's been masquerading as the Saturnian moon, Janus, for all these millenia) as it scoots away from good old Sol, headed for Spica.

Unfortunately, the viewing expedition becomes a permanent one, as Janus' gravitational tricks grab Lind's ship and suddenly, we have a Gilligan's Island situation. Minus the comedy.

The stranded ship creates its own civilization amidst the doom and gloom of life attached to Janus. Janus gives just enough of itself to the humans attached like fleas, to let them survive, without much in the way of thriving. In some ways, this section of the book harkens back to Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. During the bad years, Bella loses her spot as leader and ends up as a prisoner under house arrest. That arrest is in a poorly-heated hut on the far reaches of human civilization, such that it is on Janus. She worms her way back into being part of the community, if not leading it, when the last section of the book arrives.

Humans are not alone.

Well, dahhh! There's the matter of the Janus ship for one thing. But it's quite another to meet up with the aliens. Reynolds proves as adept in alien-building as he does hardware. We get a long section that features more than a few aliens, although only two are really described in detail. Reynolds' Unseen Ones prove more fearsome in the absence of seeing them. It's a neat trick.

Janus does get into the neighbourhood of Janus before being sequestered away in the galactic equivalent of a garage. The contretemps with the aliens force yet another decision on Bella, Svetlana et al, and the generations they have spawned as to whether to stay in the garage or get out before a coming wave of nasty aliens makes their old/new home unsurvivable.

The ending, predictable or not, leaves me hoping for a sequel.

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