Pushing Ice, by Alastair Reynolds

I’d originally bought this book for my sister-in-law, mostly because I wanted to read something by Alastair Reynolds and I’d be able to read it after she was finished. Reynolds is a relatively new U.K. author that’s been lauded for revitalizing space opera. After my sister-in-law read it, I asked her how she liked it. She was lukewarm about the book, saying she was curious to see what I thought after reading it.

I must first make the point that Ace is trying to straddle sub-genres with Reynolds’s books (yes, I’m still into studying sub-genres, also spelled “subgenres”). Reynolds’s books send two messages: the artwork and layout says Hard SF, while the blurbs and quotes say Space Opera or Adventure SF — literally. On the front of Pushing Ice, the Denver Post says “A thrilling ride in the new era of well-written space adventure.” Two quotes on the back specifically call it “Space Opera.”

So what’s the difference between Hard SF and Space Opera (also Adventure SF)? It can be a fuzzy line, particularly if the Space Opera in question uses plausible science which, for the most part, Reynolds does. Hard SF is usually more about the “concept” and how characters react to it, than about the characters, their growth, and their relationships. Space Opera is the opposite. It can have epic scope and usually, there’ll be a few characters who are larger than life and will display heroic qualities. This is why publishers think men gravitate toward Hard SF and women toward Space Opera — although that’s stereotypical and since I like both, I hope there’s plenty of people like me.

The Hard SF side: this is about a commercial ship and crew, who mine comets/asteroids (push ice) in 2057. When Saturn’s moon Janice decides to leave orbit and head out of the solar system at high speed, the ship is asked to follow, catch up, and spend a couple days getting information (like, how and why is it behaving in a very un-moon-like manner?). They’re the only ship that’s within reach. To avoid plot spoilers, I’ll say the crew meets many challenges with their near-future technology, but things go very wrong and their destiny is changed. From a Hard SF perspective, the book is a pretty satisfying read.

The Space Opera side: this is about a struggle between two strong-willed women. One is the ship’s captain and the other is the ship’s engineer. It’s also about individuals on the crew having to make personal life-wrenching decisions. From the framing story we find their journey covers the entirety of mankind’s existence so, in a way, the story has epic proportions although the characters don’t realize this time dilation until late in the book. Unfortunately, hardly any of the characters are likable. Not only that, throughout the book the characters can be expected to display the worst side of humanity. They also don’t tend to be consistent. The engineer who, in the beginning, suspected their bosses were sending them on a suicide mission, was quite happy later to trust mercenary aliens that aren’t considerate of individual organisms or individual lives. [Another character even points this out, but I don’t think Reynolds does a good job of explaining away her usual lack of trust.]

Space Opera readers may consider the ending somewhat dissatisfying and they may notice there’s no reward for “heroic” behavior. Really. If somebody shows larger-than-life altruistic behavior, they’re usually ridiculed, slapped down, punished, imprisoned, or killed [at first, this doesn’t seem so, but go ahead and track the character arcs through — you’ll see]. This matches the slightly dystopian theme that some readers may notice and some may not, depending upon the underlying views of life the reader may have. If you like Space Opera more than Hard SF and you want happy endings, like my sister-in-law, then you may not find the book satisfying.

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