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Pushing Ice (Gollancz SF S.) by Alastair Reynolds
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 0575074396
Date: 20 October, 2005 List Price £10.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

If you were to sit me down and ask me to list the ingredients for the recipe of my ideal science fiction story, I'd most likely come up with something approximating Pushing Ice, the glorious new novel from Alastair Reynolds. This is not only the best SF book I've read this year, it is one of the best I've read - period!

And yet I find myself faced with writing a difficult review, for to tell you about this novel is to give away some of it's pleasures, secrets and surprises. So, if you're brave enough to simply take my word for it (and you should know by now that you can trust me!) don't read on - just go out and buy Pushing Ice - you won't regret it.

Still here? Very well then, allow me to furnish you with a little background. The Rockhopper is a comet-chasing ship carrying a bunch of hardy miners. Their job is to latch onto the huge frozen rocks that wiz through the system and collect up the ice they find there. The ship is part of a fleet run by a corporation back on Earth and its crew are fairly average space faring folk - as opposed to "Right Stuff" astronaut hero types. I was reminded very much of the crew of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott's Alien - though comparisons to that movie end right there. The Rockhopper is diverted to investigate something very strange indeed - Janus, the sixth moon of Saturn has inexplicably broken from its orbit and seems to be heading off, under its own steam, out of the system. This bizarre event has Earth entirely baffled and as the nearest ship, the Rockhopper is sent to take a look.

The captain of the Rockhopper, Bella Lind, is obliged to follow her orders, but there is dissent in her crew at this new directive. Naturally they wish to be compensated - being interstellar explorers was not what they signed up for after all. As the ship nears Janus, the dissent intensifies - it is becoming clear that Janus is moving at one hell of pace and the Rockhopper may not have the fuel to return. Chief Engineer Svetlana Barseghian is suspicious of the company's motives and delving a little deeper finds that the figures just don't add up. Until now, Bella and Svetlana have been the best of friends as well as colleagues, but whereas Bella is fueled with the historic significance of their revised mission, Svetlana convinces herself that the Rockhopper and her crew have become expendable. Dissent threatens to erupt into mutiny.

And so we can safely assume that with this premise, we're involved with a fairly standard SF scenario - this is clearly a space mystery involving some anomalous object in which the characters dutifully follow their opposing agendas - result? One faction wins, the other loses.

Think again! Here is where Reynolds' so effortlessly displays his genius. As the story of Pushing Ice develops, it accrues story elements that morph the narrative through any number of novel types - it evolves time and time again, each development a superb surprise for the reader. We experience a tale of titanic power struggles, a gritty survival story, an epic of new beginnings, a first contact novel, an escape adventure and much, much more and thus we end up with a sophisticated amalgam of everything one might want from an SF novel. Pushing Ice is thus character driven, idea driven and plot driven - it is a story of milieu and event - in short it is a kitchen sink novel, one with everything thrown in, and as such, it is as brilliant and compelling a piece of fiction as you could possibly want to read.

Within this superlative construction, Reynolds is not a writer to take a wild stab at the science in his stories. His approach is informed by his own experiences as a scientist, and he extrapolates much of the science in Pushing Ice (and, indeed, in all of his novels) from some elements of factual reality. This tends to give his fiction a grounding that seems so real when one reads it - no matter how fanciful or fantastic the situation. The characters come across as real people. One feels their confusion or discomfort, their fact locked into our fiction. It's impossible not to get involved. And behind every chapter, the mystery of Janus looms large - the sheer, wild strangeness of what the moon does underpins the action and compels us to hungrily read on to solve the mystery for ourselves.

In the hands of a lesser writer, these myriad elements would be nothing more than a directionless jumble, but Reynolds juggles and steers each of these balls with such a incredible lightness of touch, that at each stage of the story's development and evolution, it is impossible to second guess him as to which direction the novel will take next. All these subtly drawn twists build to a dizzying and breakneck climax that is an unashamed and unabashed in its celebration of the genre.

Pushing Ice is a marvelously satisfying unpredictable work - truly a voyage into the unknown. I look forward to seeing it win a host of awards. It certainly deserves to.

Very highly recommended.

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