BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A man awakens on a malfunctioning spaceship with no memory and must unravel the mystery of his identity and the ship’s true mission.
PROS: The true purpose of the ship, once revealed, is intriguing and raises moral and ethical questions; good horror elements.
CONS: Indistinct characters; what’s really going on is revealed too slowly.
BOTTOM LINE: I would have loved to have seen the slowly-revealed thought-provoking premises exposed earlier and explored more thoroughly.
Mysteries are not new to science fiction, nor are the specific type of mystery that begins with a narrator waking up with no memories. The lure of these amnesia-type of stories is that readers, right along with the protagonist, discover the world around them. For the character, it’s a chance at finding his identity. For the reader, it’s the exploration of the world and the mystery leading up to the amnesia.
Such is the premise of Greg Bear’s latest novel, Hull Zero Three. The narrator here awakens right at the start of the story, literally birthed from a sac. He finds himself inside Ship (not “a ship”, not “the ship”; he somehow knows to call it “Ship”) and he knows something has gone wrong. It’s too cold to support life and he is quickly whisked away, at the behest of a young girl, to race against a sequence of closing doors, chasing the dwindling heat. The ship is a colonist ship that has yet to reach its destination and is obviously malfunctioning: it cycles through periods of spin up and spin down, and therefore through periods of gravity and weightlessness; it’s populated with maintenance creatures known as factors that often prove themselves to be deadly; and nobody seems to be running the place…at first.
The ship itself is comprised of three separate hulls situated around a huge ball of ice, which serves as ballast and fuel, though is curiously much larger than would be required for their journey. The narrator, who is referred to as Teacher — some indicator to his role on Ship — awakens in the first hull and soon learns that he must somehow make it to the third hull for survival and answers. He’s not alone in his quest. There’s the young girl, of course, and along the way he meets up with other creatures; aliens who are just as confused as he is, although sometimes it seems like they are just being uncooperative.
The confusion is a feeling often shared by the reader. Pieces to the puzzle are dropped along the way — things like an apparent war between factions and something called Destination Guidance and what its true purpose might be – but it’s not altogether clear how these pieces fit together when they are reveled. The narrative (whose sometimes-terse delivery in the earlier parts of the book reads like a Zork text adventure while Teacher slowly builds his vocabulary) is also ripe with descriptions of varying detail and vagueness. Sometimes generic rooms are described in way to much detail, yet the more-important alien characters are so vaguely described that they remain visually elusive. Add to that the mystery of what’s really going on and how slowly it unravels – it all leaves the reader feeling somewhat disoriented for the majority of the book. While this disorientation does serve to put one in the narrator’s shoes, it also feels like the novel suffers from plot pacing issues — this despite the fact that there is a feeling of urgency expressed by the characters themselves. That is, Teacher moves swiftly from one situation to the next, from one danger to another, moving ever closer to the Real Story…but overall the book takes it sweet ol’ time getting the payoff.
But when it does, when the bigger picture emerges, you somewhat come to appreciate the book’s virtues, if not the perceived length of the journey. Bear’s depiction of the factors, for example, nicely evokes elements of horror. The description of the ship and the colonization mission is good sf material, and the variety of creatures is refreshing. Meanwhile, as the ship’s and the crew’s purpose finally becomes known, it raises thought-provoking questions of morality and ethics that intrigue the reader. Given the weight that these themes lend the story, I would have loved to have seen the reveal happen way sooner and the issues explored more deeply.