Hull Zero Three
by Greg Bear
"For some reason, survival makes me laugh. I've come this far, I become multitudes--I'm more than eccentric, I'm plain silly--my life makes me laugh in mad earnest. I stop laughing, suck as much air as I can stand, try not to retch, and continue my climb, hand over hand, following instinct." (p 116)
I had not read any of Greg Bear's extensive oeuvre before picking up Hull Zero Three to read as part of the 2012 Sci-Fi challenge at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm. What I discovered while reading this book was a thought-provoking and challenging novel by a multiple award-winning SF author. Although the novel employs many classic tropes – the deep space mission gone awry, consciousness spawned and run amok, humanity’s struggle with survival and destruction – conceptually, Hull Zero Three paints an ambitious picture of space exploration in the distant future. In overall form it is more a mystery than an actual hard, groundbreaking SF novel, and even if the themes and ideas are familiar the conundrums that emanate from Bear’s storytelling skill make the book a worthwhile, if en petite abstruse, read. Bear presents classic familiar questions in the science fiction realm, contrasting humanity and individuality--dream versus reality through the lens of genetic manipulation, and examines the future of a primitive and destructive humankind among the stars. In some, slight way the book reminded me of other Science Fiction that I have enjoyed like James Blish's Cities in Flight and A. E. Van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Bear’s novel is certainly more sophisticated than the latter and incredibly subtle with powerful concepts that provoke reflection. I enjoyed Hull Zero Three for the most part and found the conclusion especially satisfying.
There are a few aspects of the book that I found disappointing in light of the overall success. The presentation of the mystery, as narrated by Teacher, the main character in the book is slow to develop. While the reader can enjoy the discovery of clues as to the nature of the ship that is Teacher's home, the difficulty in putting the pieces together detracts from the overall presentation of the story. Hull Zero Three is written with a great expanse of detail, but in a strange way the descriptions and style are often confusing and intangible; the characters and even Ship (note the capitalization and lack of a definite article) itself are hard to visualize. For example, monkey-like creatures are described as donuts, one character can rearrange her bulk and shape by somehow shifting sinew and muscle. Teacher is prone to confused visualizations as he tries to reform his new lexicon from deep sleep. He discovers new words he didn’t know existed, unlocking memories for each item and creature he encounters the longer he is awake, and this initial use of language, the importance of books and the actual format of Hull Zero Three – itself as a written book by Teacher – is very clever and comes together nicely by the end of the book…but the overall effect is somewhat piecemeal. I grew impatient at times with the stylistic details of the novel and from the lack of actual, meaty character development – there are some scenes of self-reflection, but without any real depth or heft. Hull Zero Three is more about the mystery and solving the puzzle than it is about realization of character arcs – which isn’t to say that Teacher’s struggle isn’t a valid or engaging one! It certainly is. But Hull‘s strengths lie elsewhere – namely, in that of its overall concept and design.
That Bear is able to overcome some of these issues and bring the story together brilliantly by the end of the novel while resolving questions raised by the mysteries of Ship, the resolution felt somewhat subitaneous. To much telling in the wrapping up marred the excellent space adventure but did not keep me from considering more Greg Bear for my future and recommending this particular novel for your future.
Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear. Orbit Books, 2011 (2010)