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On The Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds

Poseidon’s Children 2 Gollancz, 2013, 483 p
Reviewed for Interzone 250, Jan-Feb 2014.

In Blue Remembered Earth, the previous volume in Reynolds’s Poseidon’s Children sequence, the Akinya family was instrumental in the development of the Chibesa-drive engine which drastically increased the maximum speed of space travel. On the Steel Breeze is set a very long generation or so after the events of the previous book and the family is now much less powerful. Chibesa physics has allowed hollowed out asteroids dubbed holoships to be sent out in strings – Reynolds nods to history by using the term caravans – to various promising destinations in the stars. These holoships are each large enough to be able to house herds of elephants as well as the emigrating humans. Life prolongation techniques are so far advanced that withdrawal of such treatment is used as a punishment for crimes – a generation’s life span is now measured in several hundred years. Chiku Akinya, great-granddaughter of Eunice Akinya the begetter of the Chibesa drive, has an unusual triple identity. A process called Quorum Binding has stamped Chiku’s personality and memories on three indistinguishable bodies (her original and two clones) which are able to communicate almost telepathically deeply. Chiku Red set out after Eunice Akinya’s ship; Chiku Green is on the holoship Zanzibar, en route to Crucible, the extra-Solar planet with the enigmatic structure known as the mandala, discovered by the telescopic array Ocular; Chiku Yellow stayed on Earth. The novel intertwines the fortunes of the three Chikus. Making a reappearance is the artilect of Eunice – an AI in human form, as close an approximation to the human original as possible – which Chiku’s mother developed in the earlier novel. “She” is in a hidden chamber on Zanzibar tending a set of enhanced, “talking” elephants known as Trantors.

Much of the initial action takes place on Zanzibar, in whose caravan experiments to develop post-Chibesa physics have been proscribed. Travertine (who for some reason has a set of personal pronouns, ve, ver, vis, all to verself) has caused hundreds of deaths by an illegal but vital experiment. The holoships have been accelerated too much to be slowed down effectively enough by their Chibesa engines. The caravan’s politics, though, are set against the necessary research.

Back on Earth Chiku Yellow, with the aid of the merfolk of the United Aquatic Nations who reunite her consciousness with the returned Chiku Red’s, acts on a communication from Chiku Green to seek out a woman who can facilitate contact with their founder, Arethusa, who in turn may have knowledge that not all is as it seems on Crucible. This necessitates a journey to the surface of Venus (and, later, Mars and Hyperion.) Here the plot, as in Blue Remembered Earth, comes dangerously close to pulling the characters around the Solar System to show off the author’s research or to provide a set piece drama. The inevitable disaster with the space elevator connecting to Venus’s surface demonstrates the Chikus have a dangerous enemy. This is the “machine distributed consciousness” called Arachne which oversees the data produced by Ocular and has infiltrated the aug, the controlling agency of the Surveilled World familiar from Blue Remembered Earth. The secret Arachne is protecting is the presence in orbit round Crucible of over twenty enigmatic pine cone-like spaceships dubbed Watchkeepers.

Plot aplenty to be going on with then, and the above merely sketches the set-up. The playing out of the politics of Zanzibar’s caravan, involving the clandestine construction and launch of a scout ship to reconnoitre Crucible, the repression and conflict which ensues, the true situation on Crucible, fill out the story. The scout party’s meeting with Arachne’s avatar on Crucible verges on fantasy territory, though. While any sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, in Science Fiction some degree of explicability is generally thought desirable.

Despite the space travelling elephants (and the light aeroplane able to fly within their hidden chamber in the holoship,) the mandala and the Watchkeepers, Reynolds doesn’t quite hit the sense of wonder button squarely with this one. The scale fails to register. (That may just have been a jaded reviewer’s perception, though.)

Yet with his holoships Reynolds has – much as he did in Pushing Ice – re-imagined the generation starship trope, albeit with less of a focus on the ships’ passengers than in novels of yore. Also in the mix, though such is the detail of Reynolds’s future that they have not yet been explored in any detail, is a Big Dumb Object in the shape of the mandala and a kind of first contact (the Watchkeepers.)

An example of the possibility of avoiding what the Watchkeepers apparently think is the inevitable conflict between organisms and artilects, Eunice poses the question of what it actually means to be human – highlighting a typically human tale of stupidities, betrayals, love and duty.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Omitted “a”, a for an, doubled “the”s, “had”s and “was”es, “assesment” “compliated” a “breaking” mechanism for slowing down, an “I have strode,” “on my behalf” instead of “on my part” plus the interesting coinage “programmemes.”

Review Delivered

My review of Alastair Reynolds’s On the Steel Breeze has been forwarded to Interzone.

Reviews head honcho Jim Steel tells me I was first in this time. (We aim to please.)

It’s due for Interzone 250, Jan-Feb 2014.

On The Steel Breeze

My latest book for Interzone review is Alastair Reynolds’s On The Steel Breeze, second in the Poseidon’s Children series, the first of which, Blue Remembered Earth, I read only a couple of weeks ago.

It’s a bulky beast and was too big for my letter box. Just as well I was not in a state of indecency as I had to open the door to the postwoman.

The cover of On The Steel Breeze is emblazoned “The Maestro of British SF, A Secret Millions Will Die For.”

Is he?

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2012, 506 p.

Blue Remembered Earth cover

Global warming and sea level rises have altered the political landscape of Earth drastically. Africa is bounded by walls to keep out the sea and has become a global power house. People in this future have internal augmentation for long distance information and communication. Very few environments are beyond the reach of this Surveilled World, run by the Mechanism, which by overseeing everyone’s implanted augmentation prevents crimes occurring. Brother and sister Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya are two of the grandchildren of Eunice, the founder of the prominent industrial company Akinya Space, but are detached from this family enterprise; cousins Hector and Lucas are very much involved in its running.

Geoffrey is using aug to study elephants in the Amboseli region of Africa, Sunday is an artist in the Descrutinised Zone, an area of the Moon where, for privacy reasons, the Mechanism doesn’t operate. When Eunice dies both Geoffrey and Sunday are drawn into a search for something she may have left behind which Hector and Lucas fear may impact badly on the company’s fortunes.

The action roams from the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro to the Moon, under the Indian Ocean in the realm of the United Aquatic Nations, on to Phobos, then Mars, out to the Kuiper Belt and back. An array of instruments known as the Ocular, spanning vast areas of the Oort Cloud, has allowed imaging of extraterrestrial planets at high resolution and detection of a structure known as the Mandala on Sixty-one Virginis-f.

In this vision of a future where humanity is scattered over the Solar System Blue Remembered Earth is reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. That novel, though, was to a large extent plotless, and its hero was really the Solar System. Blue Remembered Earth’s plot is intricately and cleverly meshed – like whatever passes for clockwork these digital days. And therein lies a problem. The characters are drawn all over the system by the plot’s exigencies. It is over-engineered, with complications that inspire “hold on a minute” moments. Its heroine is in effect Eunice, and she never makes an appearance except by way of machines imprinted with versions of her personality.

It’s still good SF though.

Pedant’s corner: overlaying for overlying. There was also a scene set on Mars where an abandoned Russian site on Mars had a faded hammer and sickle flag and Reynolds also mentions a former Soviet submarine. Is he still lost somewhere in the Cold War?

Another List

This is a list of top 100 Science Fiction And Fantasy books from the website at NPR BOOKS to which I was directed via Ian Sales‘s blog. I got to it too late to take part in the poll NPR ran where you were to choose your favourite ten.

The usual applies; bold I’ve read, italics means I own but have not yet read it. ???? means I may have read it when I was (very) young but can’t actually remember.

The Acts Of Caine Series, by Matthew Woodring Stover
The Algebraist, by Iain M Banks
Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers

Armor, by John Steakley
The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson
Battlefield Earth, by L Ron Hubbard
Beggars In Spain, by Nancy Kress
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Black Company Series, by Glen Cook
The Black Jewels Series, by Anne Bishop
The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Bridge Of Birds, by Barry Hughart
The Callahan’s Series, by Spider Robinson
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M Miller
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, by Robert Heinlein
Cat’s Cradle , by Kurt Vonnegut
The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
The Change Series, by SM Stirling
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C Clarke
Children Of God, by Mary Doria Russell
The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R Donaldson
The City And The City, by China Miéville
City And The Stars, by Arthur C Clarke

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
The Coldfire Trilogy, by CS Friedman
The Commonwealth Saga, by Peter F Hamilton
The Company Wars, by CJ Cherryh
The Conan The Barbarian Series, by Robert Howard
Contact, by Carl Sagan
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
The Culture Series, by Iain M Banks
The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
The Day of Triffids, by John Wyndham
Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison

The Deed of Paksennarion Trilogy, by Elizabeth Moon
The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester
The Deverry Cycle, by Katharine Kerr
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K LeGuin
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick.

Don’t Bite The Sun, by Tanith Lee
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre
The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert

Earth, by David Brin
Earth Abides, by George R Stewart
The Eisenhorn Omnibus, by Dan Abnett
The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Eon, by Greg Bear
The Eyes Of The Dragon, by Stephen King
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The Faded Sun Trilogy, by CJ Cherryh
Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser Series, by Fritz Leiber
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, by Guy Gavriel Kay.
A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
The Foreigner Series, by CJ Cherryh
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
The Gaea Trilogy, by John Varley
The Gap Series, by Stephen R Donaldson
The Gate To Women’s Country, by Sheri S Tepper
Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake (two only, the third is tbr)
Grass, by Sheri S Tepper
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End of The World, by Haruki Murakami
The Heechee Saga, by Frederik Pohl
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hollows Series, by Kim Harrison
House Of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski
The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov ????
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The Incarnations Of Immortality Series, by Piers Anthony
The Inheritance Trilogy, by NK Jemisin
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
Kindred, by Octavia Butler
The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
Kraken, by China Miéville
The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
Last Call, by Tim Powers
The Last Coin, by James P Blaylock
The Last Herald Mage Trilogy, by Mercedes Lackey – never read it.
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S Beagle
The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K LeGuin.
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K LeGuin

The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by RA Salvatore
The Lensman Series, by EE Smith
The Liaden Universe Series, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
The Lies Of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lync.
Lilith’s Brood, by Octavia Butler
Little, Big, by John Crowley
The Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
Lord Of Light, by Roger Zelazny
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by JRR Tolkien (one only)
Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg
Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K Dick.
The Manifold Trilogy, by Stephen Baxter
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury ?????
Memory And Dream, by Charles de Lint
Memory, Sorrow, And Thorn Trilogy, by Tad Williams
Mindkiller, by Spider Robinson
The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Mordant’s Need, by Stephen Donaldson
More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov

The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy, by Robert J Sawyer
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
The Newsflesh Trilogy, by Mira Grant
The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, by Peter F Hamilton
Novels Of The Company, by Kage Baker
Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith
The Number Of The Beast, by Robert Heinlein
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
On Basilisk Station, by David Weber
The Once And Future King, by TH White
Oryx And Crake, by Margaret Atwood
The Otherland Tetralogy, by Tad Williams
The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
Parable Of The Sower, by Octavia Butler
The Passage, by Justin Cronin
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville
The Prestige, by Christopher Priest

The Pride Of Chanur, by CJ Cherryh
The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy, by R Scott Bakker
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C Clarke
Replay, by Ken Grimwood
Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E Feist
Ringworld, by Larry Niven

The Riverworld Series, by Philip Jose Farmer
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Saga Of Pliocene Exile, by Julian May
The Saga Of Recluce, by LE Modesitt Jr
The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
The Sarantine Mosaic Series, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K Dick
The Scar, by China Miéville

The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
The Shattered Chain Trilogy, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Silmarillion, by JRR Tolkien
The Sirens Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
The Snow Queen, by Joan D Vinge
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury ?????
Song for the Basilisk, by Patricia McKillip
A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
The Space Trilogy, by CS Lewis
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison
Stand On Zanzibar, by John Brunner
The Stand, by Stephen King
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Stations Of The Tide, by Michael Swanwick
Steel Beach, by John Varley
Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
The Swordspoint Trilogy, by Ellen Kushner
The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card.
The Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novik
The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein
The Time Machine, by HG Wells ?????
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
To Say Nothing Of The Dog, by Connie Willis
The Troy Trilogy, by David Gemmell
Ubik, by Philip K Dick
The Uplift Saga, by David Brin
The Valdemar Series, by Mercedes Lackey
VALIS, by Philip K Dick
Venus On The Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout/Philip Jose Farmer
The Vlad Taltos Series, by Steven Brust
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Vurt Trilogy, by Jeff Noon (the first certainly)
The War Of The Worlds, by HG Wells
Watchmen, by Alan Moore
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
Way Station, by Clifford D Simak
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger
Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
World War Z, by Max Brooks
The Worm Ouroboros, by ER Eddison
The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon
1632, by Eric Flint
1984, by George Orwell
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C Clarke

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne ????

Many of these I’ve never heard of. Quite a few do not belong on a modern best of SF and Fantasy list. The Asimovs and the Doc Smith in particular. These were works from the early days and while bathed in the glow of nostalgia do not have the minimum of literary quality I look for when I consider books to be good.

I’m also agnostic about whether some of the recently published books on the list will stand the test of time.

Notable omissions: the books of Michael Coney and Michael Bishop for starters.

House Of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

It was apparent from early on that the title of this book was going to be a pun.

The Gentian Line builds stardams. Using ringworlds constructed by a lost civilisation known as the Priors they surround suns completely. Not even a supernova can get through. These suns, then, are housed.

The galaxy-spanning society where the novel is set contains many Lines known as Houses who employ stasis technology in their aeons long trips around the galaxy. The Lines’€™ members are called shatterlings, clones of their respective founders – but of both sexes – each with their founders’ memories. The Gentians’€™ founder, Abigail Gentian, had a strange, artificially extended childhood, brought up in near isolation on a small asteroid enclosing a tethered black hole, with only the game of psychological immersion known as Palatial for diversion.

The shatterlings Campion and Purslane – all the Gentians have names derived from plants – are aberrant in that they are lovers. They are late for their Line’€™s reunion, an important gathering where all the members’ memories of their latest “€œcircuit”€ of the galaxy are collected and shared. Before they arrive they receive the news that most of the Gentian Line has been destroyed in an attack. The novel works through their attempts to find out why, the significance of the mysterious occlusion of the Andromeda galaxy, and of the hidden Line called the House of Suns.

The book is split into eight parts each of which begins with a section which follows Abigail’€™s childhood. Thereafter succeeding chapters are, in turn, narrated from the viewpoints of Campion and Purslane. At first it is difficult to make sense of this as Reynolds does not differentiate their voices clearly enough. The other “characters,”€ some of whom are machine intelligences, step forward Cadence and Cascade – a King Crimson allusion? – are also not well delineated, even the elephant-like Ugalit Panth.

What Reynolds does give you is plot, in abundance. 500 pages of closely packed print is pushing it a bit, though.

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2008, 502p.

I thought this one might be a bit of a slog. I know readers nowadays want a lot for their money but 502 pages is pushing things a bit. I buckled down, though, and got through over 100 pages a couple of nights so it wasn’t too much of a struggle.

Tom Dreyfus is the Prefect of the title, an agent of Panoply, the police force of the Glitter Band,* an agglomeration of diverse habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone, a satellite of the sun Epsilon Eridani, the environment where the bulk of humanity now lives. Another detective novel, then, but with Space Operatic aspects.

The setting is a return to the universe of Reynolds’€™s previous Revelation Space novels but in this one the action takes place solely within the Glitter Band; apparently an ultra-democratic polity where votes on anything and everything take place all the time – including on whether Panoply may deploy weapons.

Someone has used a spaceship drive to destroy the Ruskin-Sartorious habitat thereby killing hundreds of people. The obvious culprit is punished but Dreyfus’€™s investigations lead him to believe this is merely cover for a much wider conspiracy. One of his assistants, Thalia Ng, is sent to begin software upgrades to the voting protocols on four habitats but when the last one is completed the constant contact (known as abstraction) the voters have with the centre is broken. A takeover of all four habitats ensues. The rest of the book is concerned with the efforts of Panoply to counter this insurgency and to prevent its spread to the whole Glitter Band. On the way this leads to the unmasking of two mysterious figures from the past, Aurora and the Clockmaker. The latter has put Panoply’€™s chief into mortal danger.

Once the set-up is over with and the plot gets into gear, the narrative flows nicely. There are plenty of twists and turns, with shifts in the balance of power, plus wheels within wheels, inside Panoply. Dreyfus is your standard good cop but is convincing as such, as is Thalia Ng. Some of their antagonists are a little less convincing, however.

A possible spoiler follows.

The main problem with the book is that the story merely stops. After those 502 (small font sized) pages the final conflict which the narrative sets up remains unresolved. Perhaps the book was too long already. Or is Reynolds going to give us a sequel? Whatever, while enjoying the ride, I was left somewhat unsatisfied.

*Since the disgrace of Mr Gadd I wonder if Reynolds regrets the name he gave this cornucopia of habitats?

Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2006

Galactic North is a series of shorter works (up to novella length) set in Reynolds’s Conjoiner/Demarchist/Ultra universe usually called Revelation Space; all galaxy-spanning hard SF tales with space operatic flourishes.

Aside:- Reynolds’s Conjoiners are humans enhanced by nanomachinery so that they are linked together (at shortish distances) in a hive mind. One of the problems I have with this idea is that they do not seem to behave appreciably differently from normal humans. I understand that to convey the essence of such people to Reynolds’s readers has great difficulties but they are not differentiated enough for me.

The stories in Galactic North are ordered to follow the chronology of the Revelation Space future not that of original publication. Unusually for a book of short stories the dates of their previous appearance are not given.

As is endemic to a lot of hard SF there is a good deal of info dumping and here we are also too often told things rather than shown them. The title story itself is particularly prone to this and could possibly have been expanded into a novel. It feels far too cramped in its allotted length. Also noticeable was that several of the plots involved quests of some kind.

A Spy In Europa, Grafenwalder’s Bestiary and Nightingale were more focused on character than the others in the book but all three verged rather too much into horror at their denouements.

Reynolds can spin a yarn and is capable of the gosh-wow, sense of wonder moment which SF aficionados like so much but too often in Galactic North the idea behind the story is its driver and the characters are there merely to illustrate it.

Reynolds is capable of reining in this tendency – he does so in the novels Century Rain and Pushing Ice and the reading experience is more satisfying as a result.

If you like Space Opera for its plots I’d recommend this book. If you prefer stories based more on character it’s not for you. Try Century Rain or Pushing Ice instead.

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2005

Weekend cover

Alastair Reynolds came to prominence with a series of space opera novels exploiting that famed sense of wonder which Science Fiction fans are supposed to seek so much. Most of these are in a linked series set in an imagined future called Revelation Space but the one which stood out for me was the unrelated Century Rain where part of the action centred on a fake mid-20th century Paris which Reynolds realised with considerable success. The Gollancz paperbacks of these Reynolds books are of a strange size, the height of normal paperbacks but with a larger page width so that they sit proud of other books on a shelf. They also tend to be lengthy books. Charles Stross has recently posted on why SF novels became doorstops.

Pushing Ice is again unlinked to the Revelation Space series and begins as a Big Dumb Object (BDO) novel. The BDO in question is Janus, one of Saturn’s smaller moons, which has suddenly revealed itself to be an alien space ship and has zoomed off in the direction of the star Spica. The ice-pushing (ie comet quarrying) ship Rockhopper is the only Earth vessel capable of intercepting Janus and is sent to find out as much as possible. A sequence of accidents and misjudgements means Rockhopper is doomed never to return to Earth and will accompany Janus on its thirteen year journey. A major plot point concerns a message sent back from Rockhopper to Earth and broadcast on CNN. I did wonder; will CNN still be around in 2057?

The book then becomes a BDO novel thrice over as Janus comes to rest in a strand of a huge toroidal construction (I thought Bird’s Nest Stadium when I read the description) having passed through a tubular structure at Spica en route. Rockhopper, now firmly attached to Janus – off which it leaches its energy needs – has effectively become a generation starship. We then get first, and second, contact thrown into the mix.

In all there are three sections, separated – one more so than the others – in subjective time (Janus achieves relativistic speeds) and also thematically. The third section in particular stands on its own, but in the end the book is a touch too long. This does, however, mean there is incident aplenty as the inhabitants of Rockhopper come to terms with their ever changing situation and it gives Reynolds the opportunity to inject all sorts of SF wizardry, though he doesn’€™t lose sight of characterisation, but it all verges on becoming one damn thing after another.

I suppose Reynolds (and Gollancz) didn’€™t want to publish this as two books. That would have raised the cost too, a consideration even in non credit-crunched 2005.

Despite its slight overlengthiness, I did enjoy the ride, though.

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