Monday, September 8, 2014

Microreview [book]: Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

Time Problems

One day I read the news with my morning coffee, and found it all a bit too much to handle. Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Ebola--suddenly consuming violent media for fun just didn't feel right. And this got me to thinking about how dependent science fiction and fantasy are on violence and war. But it doesn't have to be, right? Science fiction certainly has its non-violent traditions, or at least, books where violence is at the least tangential to the main narrative. So I decided to look for that kind of thing, and ended up with Pushing Ice, the second novel for me by British astronomer-turned-novelist Alastair Reynolds. I wasn't a huge fan of Revelation Space (hence why I didn't continue with the series), but I also noted the its merits--creative energy, solid prose and world-building centered on plausible, thought-provoking speculative science.

Pushing Ice, as it happens, is quite a different novel from Revelation Space, which is fairly emblematic of the New Space Opera. Actually Pushing Ice is better described as two linked novels in sequence: the first a 1980s American-style "hard SF" tale of comet miners facing material crisis in the outer reaches of the solar system; and the second a space opera of interstellar travel, alien contact and the utopian project of rebuilding human society beyond Earth. They involve the same characters, mostly, and some of the central conflicts carry over--primarily the dispute over who runs the human colony--but in other respects the novel's two halves feel almost disconnected.

Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

The basic plot is this: the Rockhopper is a commercial mining ship captained by one Bella Lind. She receives a message from home indicating that Janus, a moon of Saturn, has just broken orbit and is now heading towards an odd, clearly artificial structure in the Spica system. The Rockhopper is asked to rendezvous with Janus and make contact. But an accident reveals that the Rockhopper has less fuel than initially suspected, rendering a return to Earth questionable. A conflict emerges between Lind and chief engineer Svetlana Borghesian over what to do: first, whether to continue on to Janus (Bella) or turn back (Svetlana); and later, over whether to try turning back under worsening odds (Svetlana) or use the remaining fuel to survive on Janus (Bella). We are told that Bella and Svetlana have an unusually close friendship, and that the emerging rivalry--which continues on to the book's conclusion--is an outgrowth of that closeness. That's part one. 

Part two centers on what happens once Janus reaches its destination, with its humans in tow. Alien contact is made, wondrous new technologies are discovered, stunning revelations occur and the rivalry between Svetlana and Bella continues to be the main--and only, really--thing of any consequence from the large human contingent.

And that's where the novel's problems arise. Though Reynolds presents sophisticated treatments of alien contact and sentience, the humans just don't feel right. There are too many characters, for one, and not enough character development. Consequently, most are entirely forgettable. Worse, every one of them passively acquiesces to the power struggle between Bella and Svetlana, who essentially take turns being the authoritarian ruler of the human colony. Is this seriously how humans behave? I can see maintaining military rank for a while, but over decades? And in the absence of any discernible mechanism of coercion? I'm not saying that all new human societies have to be democratic (they most certainly do not), but imposing authoritarian leadership usually requires a method of enforcing sanctions. And attempts to change leadership are almost inevitable--yet they are absent in the narrative.

This speaks to a broader problem: we are told that events take place over decades of subjective time (and centuries of Earth time), but none of them act as if years, let alone decades, have passed. The only difference, really, is the infodumping-through-dialogue, which explains to us that lots of important things have happened, even if the characters never really act as if they have. The human conflict just doesn't make sense over a long time horizon and would have been a lot more plausible if we had been talking months rather than years.

So yeah, you could say I had some issues with Pushing Ice. But there's still a lot to recommend it: it's a fast-paced book that makes you think, and though there is a bit of violence near the end, for the most part it manages to be compelling for other reasons. Plus it easily passes the Bechdel Test, which should be a lot more common than it is. I guess in the end, though, this is a book I appreciated more than liked.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for fascinating exploration of alien contact; +1 for providing "sensawunda" without the violence; +1 for passing the Bechdel Test with ease.

Penalties: -1 for undercharacterized characters; -1 for implausible politics; -1 for time horizon issues; -1 for egregious infodumping-by-dialogue.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10. Equal parts good and bad.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.

Reference: Reynolds, Alastair. Pushing Ice [Gollancz/Ace, 2005].