Friday 19 April 2013

Hull Zero Three, by Greg Bear

I read several books by Bear in the 1980s and 90s, but the only ones I kept on my shelf were the Songs of Earth and Power duology:  The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage. This is rather curious as these are fantasies, rather than the SF which I normally read and which Bear normally writes, but I do have a soft spot for original contemporary fantasies like these and really must read them again before long.

Hull Zero Three, an SF book published in 2010, was chosen as a read of the month by the Classic Science Fiction discussion group ( ), so I decided to give it a try. The time is the distant future, the setting a huge sub-light speed colony ship on its way to find a new home for humanity; a journey of many centuries. This is not a conventional story, however.

The protagonist, simply known as Teacher, wakes from a pleasant dream of colonising a new planet into a nightmare. He is in an almost empty, freezing cold ship, populated mainly by strange and often deadly creatures, with his only ally a young girl who constantly urges him on to some unknown destination. This is a dark, downbeat and gloomy start, the bewildered and helpless Teacher having lost much of his memory and only recalling snatches of information from time to time. The air of confusion was exacerbated in my mind by the fact that Bear's descriptions of the places his characters pass through are frequently too unclear to form a mental picture of them.  Teacher meets up with other companions of the girl, strange humanoids with whom it is difficult to communicate, but they are all constantly trying to keep warm, to find food and drink, and to avoid danger. I found this a tough part of the story to get through and it goes on for almost half the book. I can't say any more about the plot without posting spoilers, so if you don't want to know what happens next, read no further - but I can reassure you that in the second half of the book both the pace and the interest pick up, and there is an intriguing conclusion.

WARNING - some spoilers follow

The first glimmers of optimism come just before the half-way point of the story, when Teacher meets up with an even more disparate group of beings who are in a more secure position and who between them (and with the aid of Teacher's returning memories) manage to piece together a picture of their circumstances. The vessel actually consists of three separate, kilometres-long ships linked to a vast central snowball which provides their reaction mass; Teacher's group are in Hull Zero One. It is clear that something has gone badly wrong with the journey and that the ship is seriously damaged.

They realise that the colonists and other creatures are not carried in corporeal form but as genetic potential, able to be artificially conceived and grown in various different physical forms to suit whatever environment is provided by the planet they arrive at, and given artificial memories. For some reason, the ship has started producing a wide range of different humans and animals even though they have not arrived at a planet. Teacher's group realise that there has been a major and still on-going conflict between Ship Control and the mysterious Destination Guidance which is based on the snowball. They travel to Hull Zero Three, the only one still in good condition, to try to discover more about what is happening and why. What they find there divides loyalties and leads to a final showdown between Ship Control and Destination Guidance, with all being revealed and resolved only at the very end of the story.

The key question: was it worth reading? That's a tough one to answer; it certainly isn't an easy read and I nearly gave up at one point, but I was just sufficiently intrigued to keep going and enjoyed the final part of the story which I read in one sitting. This is not a novel which will have universal appeal, but if you don't mind being kept in the dark for much of the story and have the patience to stick with it, you may find it worthwhile.

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