Well, this was the first Alastair Reynolds book I didn’t like. I think I can see what he was trying to achieve here and as JMS once said about one of the few (IMHO) terrible episodes of Babylon 5, “If you never fail, you’re not pushing the envelope hard enough.” However, the flaws I see in this book somewhat remind me of the critical reviews I wrote for Vector of a couple of Juliet McKenna’s books. In those she was giving us an inside-the-head point of view from, in the first case, a villain and, in the second case, a hero from a very different cultural mindset. In both of these cases I found that my interest in the tale was significantly though not fatally diminished by my antipathy to the viewpoint characters.
Spoilers for Pushing Ice
I think there are two flaws with Pushing Ice (beyond the title which I really don’t like, although I know from discussions with Charlie that even a quite established writer sometimes gets a title foisted on them by the publisher so that may not be Reynolds’ problem and it’s only a very very minor annoyance). The first problem I have is that there’s just too much going on here and that although he uses an interesting structure to tell a mind-boggling deep-time tale involving multiple alien races (some of whom are on-screen and some of whom are off-screen and some of whom are outside our main reality almost entirely) I just don’t think it works. THe story has something of a logarithmic structure, with the tale jumping forward by months, then years, then decades at a time. I’m ignoring the framing device set from a mid-point within this. This is from the point of view of the main characters who freely admit that they’re working on subjective years while subject to severe time dilation. Initially they think it’s on the order of a couple of centuries but it turns out to be an unknowable quanitiy well beyond that, quite probably into the millions of years or even longer. THe trouble is that of a 450 page book, the first 250 are about the small scale struggles of 140-odd people (some of them very odd) to come to terms with shipwreck. There’s a bit of Lord of the Flies in here and some echoes of Robinson’s Mars books about how to create a society from scratch. I was also reminded of a fiction device used to teach jurisprudence about a group of cavers separated from their society deciding that murder and cannibalism was acceptable because that way five survived to be resued whereas without it all six would perish. The trouble is that despite taking 250 pages to tell this part it’s still all done in very broad brush strokes that don’t quite add up for me. The second half moves into overdrive and introduces Reynolds’ signature Dyson-scale machinery and enigmatic aliens galore. It has some nice moments, and works better for me than the first half in that all the major structures are explained this time. However, the human side of this story falls on the other problem I have. There are two primary viewpoint characters who start out as friends and end up as enemies and then sort of friends again. In between all of this they trade off tyrannical executive authority of the human community without any mention of how this happens, and without any real good justification for why the rest of the 140 people (at first and then later up to 500 of them including now-adult children and grandchildren) go along with it. Particularly over the decades when one of the two shows herself to be vicious, mean-spirited, hate-driven and irrational. Her saint of a husband only finally goes against her in one epic struggle over a fish-tank, which betrayal is glossed over. The husband remains married to and loyal to his wife but stays a friend of the viciously tortured exiled leader. It just doesn’t work for me, I’m afraid. There are supposedly other strong personalities in this group of people and over that many years it just doesn’t work for me that no one would challenge the right of these two women to rule the group while maintaining this personal vendetta cloaked in the will of the community. Yes, there’s some dissent discussed but when you’re talking 140 people the level of dissent shown would be enough to utterly tear them apart and the reasonable middle ground people, of whom there do seem to be a majority, would seem likely to me to end up saying “a plague on both houses” and following someone from the middle-ground. So it seems to me and at times this just made me hate this book, unfortunately. This is particularly so when the feud ends up causing the worst disaster of four or five human-created problems, leaving the survivors in a really bad position and still no one really hates the vicious dictator.
That’s all glossing over the (perhaps hand-wavable with the alien intervention) genetic viability of the numbers of humans involved without even that hand-waving given, and the Deus ex Machina which although set up in the prologue framing device is still a deus ex machina that looks a bit bolted-on in the writing process (even if it wasn’t) to provide a bit of a false climax.

This doesn’t put me off Reynolds (I’m now onto Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days). I can see what he was trying to achieve with Pushing Ice and it’s just as spectacular as the Revelation Space material and Century Rain. Many of his other viewpoint characters, from Ilya to Scorpio to Clavain to Sylveste are pretty nasty, too. But they seem to work in their circumstances without spoiling the story for me. The two protagonists in this one, particularly the irrational torturing one, just don’t work for me.