Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

The burgeoning new economies in near-Earth space are fuelled by a steady stream of comets, steered back home by huge nuclear-powered mining ships like Bella Lind’s Rockhopper. They call it pushing ice.

Bella and her crew are desperate for some much needed R&R – until Janus, one of Saturn’s ice moons, inexplicably leaves its natural orbit. As it heads out into the solar system at high acceleration, layers of camouflage fall away; it appears that Janus was never a moon in the first place. Now this moon-shaped machine is headed towards the star system Spica, two hundred and sixty light-years away.

Rockhopper is the only ship anywhere near Janus, so Bella agrees to catch up and shadow the machine-moon for the few vital days before it falls for ever out of reach. In doing so she sets her ship and her crew on a collision course with destiny that will test friendship and loyalty to its limits: for Janus has more surprises in store – and not all of them are welcome.

Pushing Ice is a 2005 space-based science fiction novel (never been keen on the term ‘space opera’) from Welsh author Alastair Reynolds, which starts on the humble mining ship Rockhopper as it carries out its routine job of shepherding a comet back to Earth. Run by the determined but personally-scarred captain Bella Lind, the mission changes abruptly when one of Saturn’s moons comes to life and rockets away into outer space. There is a limited time window for Earth to gather some data from the moon machine before it moves beyond reach, and Rockhopper is the only ship within range; an exciting opportunity for some of the crew, but for others a risky and lengthy detour when they have already been away from home for too long. Bella, taking the first of what will be many significant and controversial decisions, decides that despite only being a ship that ‘pushes ice’ – a phrase used throughout to remind us of the ship and crew’s unambitious but practical nature – they need to assume the mantle of responsibility and try to get what they can from Janus.

As Rockhopper gives chase events begin to cast doubt in the minds of some of the crew, particularly Bella’s closest friend Svetlana, who thinks that they might be being kept in the dark about certain things by the owners of the ship back on Earth. As they get nearer to Janus, tensions rise and eventually an immense decision will have to be made, which tears Bella and Svetlana’s friendship apart, and the Rockhopper crew. They will either have to land on Janus and get carried out into space or find a way of dropping out of its slipstream, possibly destroying themselves in the process, and hope that Earth sends a rescue ship before systems run down. For now, Bella is victorious, but this is only the beginning of the adventure for the Rockhopper and its crew.

Pushing Ice blends an epic space adventure of colossal alien structures and technology that defies imagination with a very human story of survival in the bleakest conditions imaginable, extreme psychological stress, politics, and the hope that one day they will be able to make it back home. Bella and Svetlana, their friendship broken beyond repair, form the two leaders whose conflict and leadership will determine the future of the Rockhopper crew, until outside forces mean they will have to confront even greater challenges than they realised.

This novel follows the classic structure of starting small and moving on a journey towards an epic conclusion, but manages to combine both a large-scale view of the incredibly vast and alien world that the Rockhopper crew come into contact with, with a strong focus on human relationships and survival. As the story moves forward across years, it expands alongside the Rockhopper’s new community and brings in ethics and morals, life and death decisions, punishment, religion and humanity’s place in the universe and across the vastness of time.

There is a great deal of in depth science which some people may be really keen on, though I found myself skipping the more incomprehensible parts of the physics of speed and time, but Reynolds’ sheer scope of imagination and ability to paint elaborate alien worlds means that there is something for everybody. I really liked the very human relationships at the core of Rockhopper, even if for me Bella could get a bit self-sacrificing at times.

This is one of the best science fiction books I’ve read, up there with Arthur C Clarke’s work, and a book I would highly recommend to science fiction fans.

10/10 One of the best science fiction books I have read.

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