Chasing the warmth: Being a review of Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three

It’s an interesting experience being asked to review Hull Zero Three—a bit like stepping into an alternate universe, in some ways. Because this book bears a superficial resemblance to my own Jacob’s Ladder trilogy—Dust, Chill, and Grail—in that both are about derelict generation ships gone to mysterious and awful biomechanical fecundity, whose histories conceal awful secrets and whose surviving crews must struggle with a series of knotty ethical dilemmas.

What can I say? You railroad when it’s railroading time.

But the thing that makes it interesting is not how similar the books are, but—given their parallel premises—how very different. Because while a quick plot summary makes them sound very like, Hull Zero Three is very much its own thing.

Hull Zero Three opens in classic Nine Princes in Amber style with a nameless, amnesiac protagonist running for his life. The pace doesn’t let up from there; our hero (who we soon learn is Teacher) faces—in fairly short order—perils as mundane as freezing to death or being bisected by a crashing bulkhead, and as exotic as the engineered monster (“factors”) that clean and maintain the sick Ship he is trying to survive inside. This isn’t your classic tired generation ship trope—there’s no big reveal that the world is really a space ship, or any such nonsense.

Instead, Teacher is faced with a much more compelling mystery: what has gone wrong with the Ship, and why is it trying to kill him?

This is a short book, fast-paced, and it’s far more engaged with its ethical riddles and thematic mysteries than with intricacies of characterization—although I found the Tracker Tsinoy a particularly appealing character—a bioengineered, cybernetically enhanced hunter/killer beast… with the mind of a scientist. She’s so desperately charming that I wanted her to have her own book; she steals every scene she’s in.

The Ship is convincingly vast and implacable, and mysterious and self-contradictory in its motives and the motives of its inhabiting intelligences. Also, the mystery of how Teacher was born (he was a mistake, something tells him fairly early on) and why the world is trying to kill him is beautifully developed.

But the book does suffer some weaknesses—mostly structural. One of the problems of the amnesiac chase narrative is that the protagonist—and therefor the reader—has to painstakingly assemble any information he might need. This, and some fairly random monster encounters that do little but reinforce just how inimical the Ship has become to human life, tend to bog down the first two-thirds of the story. Most of the actual narrative movement takes place in the last quarter of the book, and the resolution has a structural wobble in that it’s told as a series of disconnected scenes—about half of which take place after something that reads like a prologue, and more or less removes any remaining tension in the book.

But Bear has always been very good at imparting a convincing sense of scope, and in this novel he manages to couple that a sort of bleak Lovecraftian nihilistic universe that allows the reader to really sympathize with his running-man protagonist.

Elizabeth Bear is not related to Greg. But she does write science fiction novels.


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