Pushing Ice - Alistair Reynolds
I'm a huge fan of physicist-turned-science fiction novelist Alistair Reynolds. To many of the writers who choose to set their stories in space and in the future, the realities of the Universe are hindrances to be ignored or dismissed. Reynolds, on the other hand, sees them as a ripe source of conflict, tension and surprise. And I think that he's never got this across quite so well as in Pushing Ice.
The trick, I think, is the way that the novel centres on a group of people in the near future - which, since no-one, not even Reynolds, actually knows what's going to happen in the near future, basically means a group of people recognisably of our own time - and then subjects them to extremes of space and time the likes of which none of Reynold's more exotic characters have ever experienced. A strong thread in all of Reynold's books - but this one especially - always seems to be to ask, 'but what would it really be like?' What would it feel like, what unexpected and disorienting things might we encounter, in deep space, moving at great speed, separated from our loved ones, faced with exotic civilisations? What challenges would we have to overcome?
Reynolds has a great knack for answering these questions in a dramatic and interesting fashion. Throughout Pushing Ice Newtonian and Einsteinian physics conspire together with international tensions, corporate irresponisibility and baffling alien intelligences - not to mention the sheer scale of space and time in the Universe - to throw up lethal problems that force a cast of everyday spacemen and women to re-evaluate their certainties and priorities.
The book isn't perfect, of course, the first part has a serious case of white-room syndrome that only fades in later parts of the book; I'm left with little picture in my head of what should be an iconic spacecraft. Reynolds also continues to show a slight difficulty in introducing the diversity of perspective and passage of time that he likes to use. But aside from that, Pushing Ice is a poweful, atmospheric book, full of compelling characters and situations that are both highly imaginative and very believable. Its central theme is also, while hardly original, extremely well conveyed by the span of the story: all existence is fleeting, even that of whole civilisations and species - so STFU and enjoy it while it last.