Stealing a Moon
By Cheryl Morgan
One of the classic devices of science fiction is the generation of sense of wonder. Writers who are good scientists as well can come up with seriously "Gosh! Wow!" ideas that enthrall their readers. This year weíve seen a fair amount of that from people like Charles Stross and Robert Charles Wilson. Not to be outdone, Alastair Reynolds has produced his own offering, Pushing Ice.
The small world called Janus is a moon of Saturn. Thanks to the Cassini probe, we have good pictures of this small, unremarkable, misshapen rock. But Janus is an odd world, for it shares its orbit (in the gap between Saturnís F and G rings) with another moon, Epimetheus. Why are there two moons in the same orbit? Any number of reasons could be advanced, but it is the duty of the science fiction writer to come up with the unexpected.
"Or rather," Bella interrupted Svetlanaís thoughts, "Janus used to be one of Saturnís moons. Now we have to redefine it. About thirty hours ago, Janusís orbit began to deviate from its expected trajectory around Saturn."
Oh my! So maybe Janus isnít a moon at all. If it is a moon, why would anyone steal it? And if it isnít, then maybe it is an alien spacecraft in disguise. A spacecraft that has been hanging about in Saturnís orbit at least since 1966 when Janus was first noticed by Earth. And we are now in 2057.
The point is that someone really ought to investigate, but Janus is accelerating at a fair lick and is heading out of the solar system. The only spacecraft with much chance of intercepting it is the Rockhopper, a comet-mining vessel. It is crewed by miners and engineers, not scientists, soldiers, or anyone with experience of first contact theory, but it is the only ship available and its owners have been offered a substantial amount of money by their government to undertake the mission to Janus. Thus Captain Bella Lind and her crew find themselves co-opted onto a scientific mission.
It isnít long, however, before things start to go wrong. In pushing their craft to the limit to chase the fleeing moon/aliens, the crew of the Rockhopper finds problems with their vessel that suggest that they may not be able to make it back home. Then they find out that a rival vessel flying a Chinese flag is also headed after Janus, and that hostilities are expected. Also the boffins back on Earth have plotted the course that Janus is following. Taking a close look at the star system it is heading for they find something no one had noticed before.
"The structure appears to be floating somewhere close to the Lagrange point between the two stars, where their gravity fields cancel each other out. If thatís the case then the object is truly enormous: seventeen or eighteen light-seconds wide, and nearly three lightminutes long. If you placed the Earth at one end of that tube, the other end would reach to the orbit of Venus."
If that wasnít scary enough, the crew of the Rockhopper soon has cause wonder what exactly the purpose of the aliens is. Did they want to steal a moon? Did they want their survey vessel back? Or was the whole exercise simply a ploy to enable them to capture something else entirely, a spaceship full of humans.
The usual expectation for a book like this is that the brave human crew will unravel the secrets of the alien civilization and somehow manage to save themselves and Earth from an awful fate. Reynolds, however, does not take the expected route. To start with he makes it clear very early on that the alien technology is way beyond the ability of the Rockhopperís crew to understand. In addition, while he doesnít shirk the necessity to talk engineering every so often in order to convince his readers that his characters can survive the situation he has dumped them into, he really telling a character-based story. For the most part, Pushing Ice is not about aliens, but about two human women, Bella Lind and her chief engineer, Svetlana Barseghian.
This is a brave decision by Reynolds. Iím sure that there will be some hard SF fans who will be irritated by the fact that he spends more time examining the relationship between his two heroines than coming up with neat ideas for alien science. Also the plot tends to drag a bit if you go into the book thinking it is a first contact or Big Dump Object novel. But there are plenty of good scientific ideas throughout the book, and Reynolds has also done a good job of writing about people. The way in which the relationship between the Rockshopperís crew and their employers falls apart once the former realize that the data they have been sent after is more valuable than their lives is very believable. So is the way in which this discovery poisons relationships between the crew. I think that Pushing Ice is a book that is more like Chasm City than like Revelation Space, but whereas I had trouble believing in some of the characters in Chasm City, Pushing Ice is very well done indeed. Provided that you know what you are getting into, it is well worth a read.