Ace, 2005, 458 pages
2057. Humanity has raised exploiting the solar system to an art form. Bella Lind and the crew of her nuclear-powered ship, the Rockhopper, push ice. They mine comets. And they're good at it.
The Rockhopper is nearing the end of its current mission cycle, and everyone is desperate for some much-needed R & R, when startling news arrives from Saturn: Janus, one of Saturn's ice moons, has inexplicably left its natural orbit and is now heading out of the solar system at high speed. As layers of camouflage fall away, it becomes clear that Janus was never a moon in the first place. It's some kind of machine - and it is now headed toward a fuzzily glimpsed artifact 260 light-years away. The Rockhopper is the only ship anywhere near Janus, and Bella Lind is ordered to shadow it for the few vital days before it falls forever out of reach. In accepting this mission, she sets her ship and her crew on a collision course with destiny - for Janus has more surprises in store, and not all of them are welcome.
Alastair Reynolds is a reliably solid hard SF author who writes sweeping epics on a grand time scale, yet never quite captures my sense of wonder precisely because of the realistic, immense scales at which his stories unfold. There is rarely any true FTL travel, so his interstellar civilizations build up over tens of thousands of years and consider a few hundred years to be a very short space of galactic time.
Pushing Ice doesn't start out on that scale — the crew of the Rockhopper is just a bunch of comet miners in the latter half of the 21st century. Humans are still a single solar system species, and aliens are science fiction. Until one of Saturn's moons suddenly takes off on its own. The Rockhopper is the closest ship to the suddenly mobile extraterrestrial satellite, so they're sent to gather data on what is obviously an ancient alien artifact that has been dormant until now. Little do they know, they will never return to Earth.
Reynolds does convincing interstellar travel, with only a few bits of handwaving with space-time, but never violating Einsteinian Relativity. So when the Rockhopper arrives at an extrasolar structure around the Spican star system, time dilation has made the journey one of only decades for them, but centuries back home. And then things really begin to get weird.
Pushing Ice is a novel of space exploration, alien contact, and big SF ideas. It's also one of the more human dramas Reynolds has written. While there's a bit of his usual transhumanism and digital uploading, the human characters still remain mostly recognizably human, and most of the conflict is centered around the interpersonal drama of two women, once friends and then the bitterest of enemies, who vye for leadership of this diasporic crew of comet miners. When the aliens show up, the conflict with multiple alien factions is actually less interesting.
This may be my favorite book by Reynolds to date, though it's not quite as epic as House of Suns. There is still a certain stiff melodrama in his characters and their dialog, not quite Asimovian coldness but still contesting with the Big Ideas and the science for center stage. But I liked this book, and while I'm still sometimes lukewarm about his other works, it's enough to make me willing to read more by him.
Also by Alastair Reynolds: My reviews of House of Suns, Revelation Space, and Terminal World.
My complete list of book reviews.