Review: Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

Vertigo

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#1
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Bella Lind and her crew of the Rockhopper push ice; that is they attach crude drives to icy comets and send them on their way to the inner solar system. But when Janus, one of Saturn’s moons, proves itself to be something very different by abruptly heading out of the solar system at high speed, the Rockhopper is the only ship in the system capable of catching it for a brief window of investigation before it gets too far away, that is assuming it doesn’t increase its acceleration.

Pushing Ice is classic Reynolds at his paint-it-on-a-huge-canvas best and yet it falls well short of his best books. That huge canvas, the ideas, concepts, vision and science, are as brilliant as ever, but his characters, never one of Reynold’s strongest points, are here quite dire. The main characters are all pretty much either unreasonably nice or equally unreasonably horrible. In particular the behaviour of one of the main characters is so appalling that I simply found their actions and motivations utterly implausible though possibly not as much as the way everyone else just quietly goes along with that behaviour. I know we humans can be a bunch of sheep at times but there are limits.

The pacing of the book is also somewhat uneven; it starts off well but in the middle becomes severely bogged down before finally beginning to pick back up towards the end. This unevenness, though annoying was not, however, a show stopper and the science kept moving along well enough to keep me reading… just.

Another minus was the ending which seemed to demand a sequel that Reynolds has never written. The whole conclusion felt desperately open ended.

An okay book but very much one where the science takes centre stage at the cost of the characters and, to some extent, the plot. The science and ideas are excellent but they were all that really held my attention, and the lack of any real conclusion coupled with the absence of a sequel made it ultimately somewhat unsatisfying. Sadly a long way from my favourite Reynolds work.

3/5 stars
 
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Onyx

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#2
I would agree that Reynolds lacks something in the character department, but the personal conflict in Ice didn't seem so incredibly outlandish given the extreme events the characters find themselves in. I felt like the major story concludes, and then the last events in the book are more epilogue rather than conclusion.

For people that really like what Reynolds is good at - the mechanics of world-building in a restricted, "realistic" science environment that allows believably outlandish plot turns - Pushing Ice is one of his best works. I would rate it immediately after the four main Revelation books and House of Suns. Whatever its sins, there is so much more meat here than any of his other books. The extremes of his character's choices don't seem that different than those made by Revelation characters, so it felt like familiar turf to me.
 

Vertigo

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#3
I would agree that Reynolds lacks something in the character department, but the personal conflict in Ice didn't seem so incredibly outlandish given the extreme events the characters find themselves in. I felt like the major story concludes, and then the last events in the book are more epilogue rather than conclusion.

For people that really like what Reynolds is good at - the mechanics of world-building in a restricted, "realistic" science environment that allows believably outlandish plot turns - Pushing Ice is one of his best works. I would rate it immediately after the four main Revelation books and House of Suns. Whatever its sins, there is so much more meat here than any of his other books. The extremes of his character's choices don't seem that different than those made by Revelation characters, so it felt like familiar turf to me.
I guess I just found myself constantly saying "I can't believe you're really saying/think/doing that." The world building was excellent but I just found the behaviours too outlandish even given the situation. In fact given the situation any half decent leader would be looking to build bridges to keep everyone together not actively driving them apart, especially when the only justification was personal hatred. That just didn't gel as being realistic and, to be honest, it wasn't necessary to have those conflicts be so extreme; the plot would have worked just as well with more reasonable levels of conflict. Hard to say more without diving into spoilers!
 

Onyx

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#4
I guess I just found myself constantly saying "I can't believe you're really saying/think/doing that." The world building was excellent but I just found the behaviours too outlandish even given the situation. In fact given the situation any half decent leader would be looking to build bridges to keep everyone together not actively driving them apart, especially when the only justification was personal hatred. That just didn't gel as being realistic and, to be honest, it wasn't necessary to have those conflicts be so extreme; the plot would have worked just as well with more reasonable levels of conflict. Hard to say more without diving into spoilers!
I know what you mean, I just didn't find those extremes any more outlandish than the way characters in Revelation Space act. So if you can swallow how those characters behave, Pushing Ice doesn't seem very different - to me.

For people that like Reynolds, I would encourage them to read Ice. All of his work is flawed, and Ice is packed with the sort of stuff I think fans enjoy most about his writing.
 

Parson

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#5
Vertigo... I agree right down the line with your take on Pushing Ice. It really soured me on Alastair Reynolds. I found the conflict between the two characters to be so contrived and unbelievable I have not read any of his since I read this one. I did enjoy the Revelation Space series, but they too eventually became unbelievable on a human level.
 

Vertigo

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#6
Vertigo... I agree right down the line with your take on Pushing Ice. It really soured me on Alastair Reynolds. I found the conflict between the two characters to be so contrived and unbelievable I have not read any of his since I read this one. I did enjoy the Revelation Space series, but they too eventually became unbelievable on a human level.
I would recommend House of Suns which has all his good stuff with much less of his bad! :D
 

Vertigo

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#8
I hesitate to say this about an author whose earliest novels I enjoyed and who has such a good reputation, but I wonder if he is a bit of a one trick pony?
I wouldn't go that far myself. Some of the Revelation Space books were excellent (Chasm City and The Prefect (will be interesting to see what Elysium Fire is like)) though some definitely fell short. I also, possibly unusually, enjoyed the Poseidon's Children series. I think he is just very uneven going from sometimes brilliant to other times quite poor.
 

Serendipity

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#9
I hesitate to say this about an author whose earliest novels I enjoyed and who has such a good reputation, but I wonder if he is a bit of a one trick pony?
I am very reluctantly coming to the same conclusion... I do wonder if he has not given himself enough time to build another universe in the detail and complexity of the Revelation Space series.

(I say this because I have, more by accident than design, come up with two very different universes... I thought it would easier and quicker the 2nd time round... Nah!)
 
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#10
I am very reluctantly coming to the same conclusion... I do wonder if he has not given himself enough time to build another universe in the detail and complexity of the Revelation Space series.

(I say this because I have, more by accident than design, come up with two very different universes... I thought it would easier and quicker the 2nd time round... Nah!)
I don't get this. There is a character motivation problem in Pushing Ice, not a world building problem. The world he created is detailed, novel and contains some big ideas throughout.

Reynolds is clumsy when it comes to character's interactions, but not at the business of creating new and different SF in general.
 

Brian G Turner

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#11
I've only tried The Prefect, thinking I was picking up a hard SF book - but it all felt very much like a space fantasy and it was disappointing for it. I'd be happy to give him another chance with House of Suns, though, seeing as that's being recommended as his strongest standalone.
 
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#12
I've only tried The Prefect, thinking I was picking up a hard SF book - but it all felt very much like a space fantasy and it was disappointing for it. I'd be happy to give him another chance with House of Suns, though, seeing as that's being recommended as his strongest standalone.
That's odd that you have avoided a SF author this prominent and relatively prolific for this long. I'd think you'd be all over a scientist that writes SF.
 

Brian G Turner

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#13
That's odd that you have avoided a SF author this prominent and relatively prolific for this long. I'd think you'd be all over a scientist that writes SF.
Oh, I read The Prefect a few years ago, but it didn't inspire me to read more by Reynolds. However, as above, I'm happy to try again on the strength of recommendations.
 

Serendipity

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#14
I don't get this. There is a character motivation problem in Pushing Ice, not a world building problem. The world he created is detailed, novel and contains some big ideas throughout.

Reynolds is clumsy when it comes to character's interactions, but not at the business of creating new and different SF in general.
First let me state where I'm coming from... There is an interaction between the world and the protagonists - a kind of two-way street that puts constraints as to what each can do - if the world is not built to a sufficient degree of detail, it will come out in the characters and what they do.

The main assumption with Reynolds' work (as far as I can see) is that his humans are mainly based on the humans we are all too familiar with. This works for his Revelation Space series because he assumes humans make their homes to fit around their standard way of being. Which I suspect is the secret of the success of this series.

But if he allowed his world to have more effect on his protagonists (and not entirely rely on standard tropes described in previously written works), then (I find this difficult to describe exactly in a few words) he would find the exaggeration of some traits, the dwindling of others and the new synergies between them would lead to some very interesting stories that explores character in novel ways.
 
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#15
First let me state where I'm coming from... There is an interaction between the world and the protagonists - a kind of two-way street that puts constraints as to what each can do - if the world is not built to a sufficient degree of detail, it will come out in the characters and what they do.

The main assumption with Reynolds' work (as far as I can see) is that his humans are mainly based on the humans we are all too familiar with. This works for his Revelation Space series because he assumes humans make their homes to fit around their standard way of being. Which I suspect is the secret of the success of this series.

But if he allowed his world to have more effect on his protagonists (and not entirely rely on standard tropes described in previously written works), then (I find this difficult to describe exactly in a few words) he would find the exaggeration of some traits, the dwindling of others and the new synergies between them would lead to some very interesting stories that explores character in novel ways.
Revelation Space takes place hundreds of years on the future. Pushing Ice is supposed to be less than a century from now. Why would the Pushing Ice characters be more divergent than their future Revelation Space cousins?

Oh, I read The Prefect a few years ago, but it didn't inspire me to read more by Reynolds. However, as above, I'm happy to try again on the strength of recommendations.
The Prefect, its sequel and a lot of the short stories are side stories to the Revelation Space universe. Probably not a good starting point, but more fan service.


Reynolds is not a perfect writer by any stretch. His dialogue and characters often are lacking. He just does other things extremely well. But several of his books are so-so and Slow Bullets is awful. But if people can actually like David Brin, Reynolds is a stand out.

I really struggle to find stuff I want to read. There are maybe fifty really impressive SF books that I've ever come across, and Reynolds manages to have many attributes of those great books - transporting the reader to a truly original place - much like Niven does.
 

Vertigo

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#16
Yeah I'd agree with @Onyx that, certainly in Pushing Ice, it's the characters not the world building or science that is at fault. But, to be fair, I think he does sometimes manage to get the characters right, at least sometimes better than others.

I'd also agree that The Prefect is definitely not a good starting point; you'd probably have done much better had you read the other Revelation Space books first. But even they are not all good; Absolution Gap was, I felt, quite weak.

Sad that I've heard so often that Slow Bullets is not good as I've not read it yet and as a bit of a completionist, at least for authors I like, I am still planning on reading this as well as Terminal World which I believe also suffers from rather mixed reviews.
 

Ursa major

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#18
but his characters, never one of Reynold’s strongest points, are here quite dire. The main characters are all pretty much either unreasonably nice or equally unreasonably horrible. In particular the behaviour of one of the main characters is so appalling that I simply found their actions and motivations utterly implausible though possibly not as much as the way everyone else just quietly goes along with that behaviour.
I totally agree with this. It was if he couldn't think of any other reason for getting certain events to turn out as they did (and as his plot required).

Note that Reynolds can write characters who are appalling, including ones whose appalling actions drive the plot, but this was different, as in those other examples either the power dynamics or the context allowed those actions to appear plausible. (This is not to say that I always liked the stories in which this occured, but it didn't pull me out of the story as it did in Pushing Ice.)

I still made it to the end of the book -- because of the huge canvas, the ideas, concepts, vision and science, etc. -- but it could have been a much better read.
 
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#19
Since we're specifically talking about the
coup
that takes place, I have to say that while the one character's actions were seemingly extreme, the assent of the crew that supports that action is not outlandish. Scapegoating is a real group dynamic, and easy to go along with when that seems to be the way the tide is running.
 

Ursa major

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#20
Since we're specifically talking about the
I wasn't. I had a problem with this in numerous places in the book.

(I can't list them now as I read the book a long time ago, and as I had borrowed it from the local public library, I don't have a copy to look through.)
 

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