Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review of "Pushing Ice" by Alastair Reynolds


Imagine a person, their heart set on a steak.  They go to the shop, buy a hunk of meat and throw it on the grill.  But just as the juices start sizzling, they decide they’re rather have a salad.  It’s a sunny day, why not something light.  But in the middle of cutting the lettuce, the sudden desire for tomato soup hits them, and out comes the big pot and garlic—no wait, dessert first…  And so on.  You now have the basic plot structure of Alastair Reynold’s 2005 Pushing Ice.  The ideas half-baked, a meal is never served.  Exposition on near-future tech, character feuds, cryogenics, FTL, a murder mystery, time shifts—each follow one on top of another but never congeal into a larger purpose.  What happened to plot?  What was my goal? Inter-character conflict or First Contact?  I’ve waded in so deep I  forget...  Oh well, I’ll just throw in some watermelon seeds with a space chase and see what happens…

I want to like Reynolds, I really do.  Similar to David Brin, Greg Egan, and Greg Bear, he’s an idea guy, and I like idea guys.  However, like Vernor Vinge he doesn’t have that natural touch of a writer or storyteller.  Chasm City and The Prefect hopefully not sucking Reynolds dry of talent, most of his works lack an adhesive, a glue—that writer-ly something—that ties a story together and gives it substance and impact.  But enough horseplay: what went wrong in Pushing Ice?

The book starts on firm footing.  It’s near future and mankind has developed the tech to reach and mine comets.  The ship Grasshopper has locked down another for drilling and blasting, when they receive a call from headquarters telling them that one of Saturn’s moons has come out of orbit and is now headed across our universe, pieces of ice sloughing off to expose a Death Star-esque superstructure beneath.  In amazingly ho-hum fashion, the Grasshopper, led by Captain Bella Lind, sets off in pursuit.  Ahh, space chase you say; I know what that is.  When Chief Engineer Svetlana finds suspicious data regarding the speed of Saturn’s “moon” and is rebutted reporting it to Captain Lind, you say: “I know that, too!  That’s called: character conflict!”  Unfortunately, from this point onward all sense of familiarity is lost—and not in a good way.  

Irregular and unnatural, the number of sub-plots and storylines Reynolds chooses to slap onto Pushing Ice amounts to a plate of spaghetti with ice cream and frogs legs.  Cryogenics, first contact, nano-forging, big dumb objects, alien linguistics, and other major sci-fi tropes take their turns, randomly occupying center stage.  If any of these devices were interwoven into plot or characterization to build toward a larger goal, then all would be understandable.  But that they work alone, discarded as necessary, leaves character and dialogue as disposable and wooden as can be.  Little coheres into an umbrella concept, the overall integrity of the novel suffering, as such.

For example, Reynolds fills multiple pages with characters figuring out the dials and buttons on a foreign space suit.  Is this knowledge later used for any of the characters’ benefit? No.  To spring a plot twist?  No.  Is it original, a space suit like no other writer of sci-fi has ever imagined?  No.  (It speaks English.)  Why then go into the detail?  As a result of this and many other useless digressions, the book is bloated with empty text that points to the fact the novel has no single driving purpose.  Is it a character examination?  A plot driven story?  A thought experiment on first contact?  Sadly, it is none.  

And the writing, well, let me be brief and give an example of how telling is so much worse than showing.  This is an actual sample from Pushing Ice:

            Bella thought about that for a few paces. “How long do you think that had been up there?”
            “How should I know?”
            “I was asking for your opinion, that’s all.”
            Christine’s defenses cracked.  She let out a quiet sigh, as if she had decided to finally stop being obstructive and there was a kind of relief in that.

That, my friends, is immature style; thanks for directly telling us the temper of Christine’s thoughts and working a major emotional change into a few words.  Suffice to say, good writers are more subtle.

A question remains: if dialogue and behavior cannot be counted on to portray character personality, what can?  Pop-culture references, of course.  T-shirt slogans and music files (all pre-21st century—a strange coincidence) are a device Reynolds uses to inform readers of his characters’ traits.  “I’ve got one nerve left and your standing on it.” is the slogan printed on Bella’s t-shirt at one point in the book.  On top of being extremely anachronistic (I mean, really; couldn’t Reynolds have had a touch more imagination to fill the media gap between now and the time the novel is set?  Take a look at Stand on Zanzibar or Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology if you want to see a writer imaginatively examining the possibilities for future entertainment.), the reader’s intelligence is insulted.  Surely there must be better tricks to impart knowledge of a character.  And I won’t even go into the obvious politically-correct casting of blacks, Asians, and whites from various European backgrounds;  at times it’s like a Wal-mart ad for home appliances. 

I don’t normally write reviews so wild in tone, but I simply don’t know how else to address Pushing Ice.  It was an extreme struggle to finish.  Nothing congealed.  The characters did not behave like normal humans.  The sci-fi tropes—aliens, big dumb objects, futuristic tech, etc.—all were dealt with in ho-hum fashion.  “Hey Joe, the first aliens humanity has ever encountered are approaching.”  “Oh yeah, I think I’ll go get some breakfast.”  There are many other sci-fi writers that have gone in-depth into these tropes in far more interesting detail.  Read an Arthur C. Clarke novel and you’ll find the same cardboard engineer characters, but at least you are grabbed by an idea that is unwrapped for all of its potential with an interesting plot.  Pushing Ice, on the other hand, contains numerous half-baked ideas and tense moments that never add up to anything.  There are also cheap plot tricks (super-secret secrets teasing readers), but are disappointments when revealed.  The scope is set epic, but the novel feels more like a cracker barrel mix of whatever sci-fi trope happened to cross Reynold’s mind at the moment.  Everything that makes a novel good suffers for it, the meal never served.

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