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Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds (2005) 460 p.

Pushing_Ice_cover_(Amazon)

In the year 2057 one of Saturn’s smaller moons, Janus, unexpectedly departs from its orbit and begins to accelerate out the solar system. Clearly no moon at all but rather an inexplicable alien artifact, the human race sends their only nearby ship scrambling after it: the comet miner Rockhopper, with a crew of about 150 under captain Bella Lind. They will have only five days to arrive at Janus and, if it doesn’t prove hostile, land on it and investigate it.

This is a great and simple set-up for a Big Dumb Object first contact mystery, clearly drawn from Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel Rendezvous with Rama, in which a gargantuan but silent alien spacecraft enters the solar system with a trajectory that will slingshot it around the sun and send it back out again, leaving a human research mission with a limited amount of time to investigate it. The difference is that Pushing Ice goes far beyond the limits of a story like that, with the crew of the Rockhopper ending the story very, very far away – in terms of both time, distance, and situation – from where they started out. It’s a great book to go into cold, and Reynolds surprised me with where he took the story at every step of the way.

Pushing Ice has the usual flaws of any science fiction story, most notably in the thinness of characters – and in particular, the pivotal feud that develops between Bella and her second-in-command Svietlana, which has its origins in an understandable enough dispute but is dragged out over a ludicrous length of time and includes a shockingly long period of solitary confinement that I very much doubt would leave the victim with a sane mind, or which the other members of the crew would stand for. This is one of the more egregious examples demonstrating that Reynolds doesn’t have a particularly good grasp on how human beings relate to one another in real life, or at least isn’t very good at writing about it. But that’s no worse a sin than most sci-fi authors, and Pushing Ice is a gripping pageturner full of intriguing mysteries which kept me engaged all the way through, and stands alongside House of Suns as one of Reynolds’ best books.

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett (1993) 381 p.
Discworld #19 (City Watch #2)

feetofclay

The City Watch books have always been the standout of the Discworld series, but Feet of Clay is where they really hit their stride. Following the mass conscription of rioters and the merging of the Day Watch and Night Watch at the end of Men at Arms, Commander Sam Vimes – newly married to Lady Sybil Ramkin and now one of the wealthiest men in the city – is overseeing something resembling an actual large, modern police force. (Thought he later says the Watch now has “nearly 30” officers, which seems low.) There are two central mysteries running through the book: a pair of murders which appear linked to the city’s small population of robot-like golems, mute creatures of clay who serve as obedient workers; and the mysterious ongoing arsenic poisoning of the Patrician.

The mystery of the poisoning storyline – in which Vetinari is bedridden but doesn’t seem likely to actually die – is not just a whodunnit but rather a howdunnit, as the Watch is baffled by how the arsenic is being administered. Vimes has his officers lock down the palace, bring in food from outside, replace the bed linen and the rugs, and even has cutlery brought from his own home. (At one point he has the brainwave that since arsenic is a metal, maybe the cutlery itself is entirely made of arsenic – until his newly hired forensics officer Cheery points out that Vetinari would notice the spoon dissolving as soon as it entered the soup.) When I first read Feet of Clay as a teenager I thought the eventual answer was brilliantly clever; I don’t know whether a more perceptive adult reader would spot it earlier. Either way it’s an engaging read, and has one of those classic Watch climaxes in which Pratchett takes a turn towards genuinely gripping set-pieces, though not quite as good as the chase through the sewers and high noon “I won’t be a policeman anymore” confrontation at the end of Men at Arms. It does, however, feature a climactic action scene which I never realised parallels the ending of Terminator 2.

The other storyline features the golems, mythical automatons of baked clay, tireless workers who cannot speak and expect no pay – rare, uncanny and not entirely trusted by the human populace, but extremely valuable to those captains of industry wealthy enough to own them. The golems are perhaps not as mindless as their human owners think, and it becomes clear fairly early in the book that they have created a new golem – a perfect one, a chiselled statue of an Adonis instead of the doughy lumps of clay the rest of them resemble – but to what ends, the Watch is unsure. These two storylines are woven together with the smooth and subtle skill we’ve come to expect from Pratchett here in the prime of his writing career.

I’m now entering the sequence of Discworld books I remember most vividly, but there are still a lot of things that went over my head as a kid. It’s ironic that the golems are lifted very specifically out of Jewish mythology, because for the first time I noticed how Ankh-Morpork’s dwarves – often employed as jewelers, watchmakers, artisans etc, and slandered by the human populace as “greedy buggers” – could parallel Jews, or at least gentiles’ perceptions of Jews. (Though they also, notably in Thud, stand in for Muslims). And the trolls, perceived by Morporkians (wrongly of course) as brutish and unintelligent savages suitable only for hard labour, are reflective of the historical plight of the African-American populace, tying into Detritus’ crusade against the crack-like drug “slab” which is ravaging troll communities. Most interesting of all is the introduction of Cheery, a new dwarf officer who – although all dwarfs outwardly present as men (a trope of the fantasy genre dating back to Tolkien) – is in fact a woman, and now that she’s in the big cosmopolitan city feels she’s entitled to act like one. When Pratchett wrote Feet of Clay in the mid ’90s this was doubtless intended and interpreted as a metaphor for closeted gay people; in 2018, it much more obviously lends itself to the analogy of trans people. I can’t quite recall whether I picked up on the satire at all as a young teenager, but of course I would have understood that the broader point, and the reason it can be applied to both the gay and trans rights movements, is universal: the desire of people to express their disapproved-of-but-harmless true selves in defiance of their own conservative culture, and the liberating atmosphere of a big city in which they’re finally afforded the freedom to do that. It’s Angua who shows Cheery the way, demonstrating how a woman can come to be accepted and respected in the traditional male world of the Watch; though what Cheery doesn’t at first realise is that Angua is also a werewolf, a race Cheery despises, which serves as both an ongoing comedy of manners and also an example that, as Vimes himself says, “Just because someone’s a member of an ethnic minority doesn’t mean they’re not a nasty small-minded little jerk.” But it also, as Vimes himself shows in later books with his waning prejudice against the undead, doesn’t also mean that nasty small-minded little jerks can’t change.

Next up is the appropriately Christmas-themed Hogfather.

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