In Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, The Cosmic Terror Of A Generation Ship

These days in Speculative Fiction it's all about the Fantasy; Urban, Epic, or Weird. What happened to all the spaceships? Take heart space cadets, Greg Bear delivers cosmic wonder — and terror — with his latest novel, Hull Zero Three.

Greg Bear is a brilliant SF writer, capable of extrapolating cutting-edge theories into dazzling set-pieces of Apocalyptic scale - I'm thinking particularly of The Forge of God or Blood Music. While I love some jaw-dropping tech as much as the next nerd, it's his penetrating focus on ethics and morality that really stand out. The fact that Bear can smack you between the lobes with a vivid and evocative passage doesn't exactly hurt either. While some of his work has failed to move me (I tuned out Darwin's Radio), top-shelf stuff like Moving Mars, Queen of Angels, Slant, and Eon have proven him more hit than miss. Hull Zero Three is not his greatest offering, but at a mere 320 pages this standalone novel packs a helluva punch. It's a welcome respite from the current trend of big honking series, but still satisfies the need for sense-of-wonder and mind-expanding weirdness.

Spoilers ahead, along with a shoal of herring in the deepest scarlet hue.

Our story opens as the great Ship, twelve kilometers long, slides into orbit around a beautiful virgin world, the future home of our narrator. While automated seedships terraformed their new world, he and his fellow colonists have spent the long, long voyage in storage learning and playing in a virtual reality called Dreamtime. Bursting with enthusiasm, he and the woman he adores —so fine in their splendid new uniforms — giddily board the landing craft.

And then he wakes up.

Torn from a slimy artificial womb he finds himself naked and in pain in a freezing cold chamber with rapidly cooling corpses of aborted adults like him discarded on the floor. Before he can ask any questions a little girl grabs him demanding he follow her RIGHT NOW. He realizes that is in fact on a starship; but one that scarcely resembles the warm and happy scenes aboard the glorious Ship of his already faded dream. The little girl drags him along on a desperate race to find habitable space; food, water, heat, and air are unreliable on this severely damaged nightmarish Ship. Even gravity is a scarcity as the centrifugal spin for this area of the Ship ceases at regular intervals. So yeah, no gravity, everything just sucks.

Our narrator, who discovers he is called Teacher, and his winsome yet tight-lipped young companion are not alone on this cosmic deathtrap. Hideous bioengineered lifeforms called factors roam the corridors performing repair and maintenance and woe betide the unwary that get in the way of their mindless tasks. One has to wonder about the mindset of the designers of a starship stocked with the equivalent of a Roomba that would give a shoggoth the willies. With a strong background in Horror, Bear has often raises the gooseflesh. For example, there's that bathroom scene in Blood Music that scared me so much…well, I was pooping in a bucket for a week. These factors and other denizens of Ship are more bizarre and menacing than the Burgess Shale-inspired freaks in his earlier novel Eternity. But I digress, constantly.

They meet a score or so of other humans, many of who appear to be as engineered as the freakish factors for specific tasks or extreme environments. Teacher himself sports subtle cranial protrusions that, although not out of place on the set of Deep Space Nine, clearly do not jibe with his memories of baseline humans. The most alarming of these new friends is Tsinoy, a protean horror of constantly shifting teeth and blades. Teacher instantly recognizes it (her, actually) as a Tracker, a special type of factor designed to hunt and kill any native creatures that might compete with Terran life. A Tracker is a living weapon with one furious purpose; so why does Tsinoy have a passion for astrophysics, friends she cares for deeply, or even a name for that matter?

Clearly there is something screwy with Teacher's "memories". With every passing moment his vocabulary grows, new words and definitions flash into his head without any personal context. He can recognize some of the Ship's systems and spout complicated technical terms yet has to be shown how to use the water dispenser. His narration blooms with metaphors and vernacular phrases that constantly baffle him. He will instantly judge a nearby object to be the size of a horse then wonder what a "horse" is. When he uses the folksy refrain, "…as sure as God made little green apples", in his interior monologue it causes a brief and baffling existential crisis. Early in the plot it is strongly suggested that Teacher has not been thawed from cryogenic slumber but whipped up from scratch from a specific recipe with a programmed personality. Even more disturbing, he may not be the first gingerbread man called Teacher to pop out of Ship's oven. Like it or not, he sets off on a half-baked quest to find what passes for control and command on Ship. He has a handful of companions whose loyalty is as dubious as his own memory. Every step of Teacher's journey shadowed by powerful on-board forces known as Ship Control, Destination Guidance, and the ominously named Mother.

Is Teacher crew or cargo; passenger, prisoner, or product? Was Ship the triumph of a techno-utopian dream on its way to a custom terraformed paradise or the last chance of a dying Earth ready to kill another world to find a new home? When an individual discovers the purpose one was fated, or in this case designed, for; can you say "no thanks."? Maybe Teacher's entire nightmare is just a malfunction in Dreamtime or a sick virtuality experiment (and wouldn't that just suck for the reader)?

Since Heinlein's "Universe" in 1941, we've seen many versions of the generation ship. Although Teacher's Ship is not technically a part of that literary fleet (it's more of a sleeper/seeder ship, really), Bear clearly has that venerable science fiction convention in mind. He named the three parts of Hull Three Zero "The Flesh", "The Devil", and "The World". This is surely a reference to 1929 essay The World, The Flesh, & The Devil by J. D. Bernal. In it the Irish physicist presented perhaps the first notion of a self-sustaining large environment traveling in space. Hull Three Zero does share some similarities to previous novels of colony-ships-gone-astray. I've been trying to compare this novel with Gene Wolfe" Book of the Long Sun tetraology, Elizabeth Bear's (no relation) Dust and Chill, Charles Stross' Glasshouse even John Varley's Titanbut I can't think of any instance quite like this offering from Bear. His characters know they are on a ship even if they've forgotten why or how things turned pear-shaped. We don't see the bizarre societal changes from generations of being bottled up but things have become Very Weird Indeed. We also see the inhabitants of Ship as the pawns of fractious powers that have become as gods in a tin-can universe, a familiar theme in generation ships.

Some people might want to make comparisons with this book and last year's forgettable film Pandorum. Yes, in both pieces a guy wakes up on a broken down spaceship and gets chased by monsters right out of a video game, but that's where the similarities end. Hull Three Zero has more depth and meaning than a typical first person shooter. Amid all the paranoid horror there is profound thought about love, conscience, and responsibility that only a story with real soul can offer. Some fans of Bear might be a tad disappointed in the lack of grand cosmic scope and Earth-shattering kabooms we've seen in his other adventures. The conclusion is less than thrilling but I've come to expect this from Greg Bear: he is often more concerned with the journey than the destination. The Mystery In Space of Hull Three Zero is more personal and at the same time very universal. When you look past all the action and exotic scenery Teacher's turmoil boils down to, "Who am I and why are we here?" We may never get the full answer but these are the kind of questions we all have to ask.

Hull Three Zero, published by Orbit Books, will be on the shelves of your local independent bookstore starting November 22nd.

Occasional commentor Grey_Area is known to the cryogenicists as Chris Hsiang. He stands agape at the strange new world he has awoken to.