Alastair Reynolds is well known and well-loved on the science fiction side of the spec-fic realm. Moreover, he’s known for his space opera and wont for writing hard science. For the uninitiated, hard science, per TVtropes, is “firmly grounded in reality, with only a few fantastic flights of fancy not justified by science, or with the technology being nonexistent in today’s world but probably scientifically possible at some point.” I’ve often found that with hard science, it’s easy, as a reader, to get bogged down with the theories and technologies that’re thrown at you to the point that it distracts from the plot. With Pushing Ice being my first Al Reynolds novel, I was pleasantly surprised to have that not always be the case.
It’s 2057, and Captain Bella Lind’s Rockhopper is an ice pusher out on a standard run mining a comet when they receive a startling message from HQ. Janus, one of the moons orbiting Saturn, has left its orbit around the ringed gas giant on a beeline out of the solar system. As Bella finds out via the message, Rockhopper is the closest ship available and they’ve been ordered to tail the maybe-not-a-moon while they can before it leaves the solar system for good. What ensues is a compelling mix of near-future science and a hell of a lot of character drama.
It takes a special author to connect you to a character so well and so fast. Past the prologue, we’re introduced to Rockhopper’s captain, Bella Lind, and immediately given the impression that this is a good person trying to do the best possible thing for everyone in her crew. As characters are introduced, we see that the crew respects Bella, and some of the higher ups are clearly close friends with her in the way that they banter. Svetlana, a close friend of Bella and chief engineer on Rockhopper, has a particularly special relationship with Bella in that they know when Bella is speaking as captain or as a friend. Parry, Svetlana’s lover and chief of security, completes this sort of triangle of protagonists. On the surface, Pushing Ice is a sci-fi novel about humans chasing after a possible first contact situation. Below the surface, however, it’s a tale of both the endurance of humanity as well as its fractiousness. Humanity’s flaws are laid bare in Rockhopper’s crew when they’re presented with their mission, and the consequences of both the mission and following significant decisions that the ice pusher’s leadership has to make. Reynolds exemplifies the endurance of humanity in one simple quote:
We push ice. It’s what we do.
When presented with an issue, the mantra of the crew is the first phrase uttered. Pushing ice isn’t easy, but the crew knows they’re the best at what they do and so the mantra applies to any issue they face – “We got this.”
Reynolds presents cool sci-fi tech, like the flexies that are bendable phones that stiffen on command and can charge off of body heat. His scientific background is clear throughout Pushing Ice in the attention to detail of thrust, gravity, oxygen, and so on. There’s plenty to love for both hard sci-fi fans and those of a softer leaning, like myself, since it didn’t feel like Reynolds force fed you the science at any point and the science wasn’t required knowledge to understand or follow the plot. As mentioned, the plot is heavily character-focused, and so several characters weave in and out of likeability throughout, which dictates the pace of the story. On the pacing front, the point-of-view characters sort of expanded about halfway through, which I thought had a negative impact on the plot as Bella was a character I’d immediately grown attached to and I’d wanted to follow her alone throughout the entire journey.
In the end, it’s easy to see why Al Reynolds is always tip-of-the-tongue when sci-fi readers are talking about their favorite authors or recommendations. Interesting tech, strong characters, and a compelling plot that poses thought-provoking questions about humanity. Those who enjoy The Expanse will likely find Reynolds right up their alley, albeit in this case with less action. I’m looking forward to moving through more of Reynolds’s backlog.