I think I’m right in saying that the only time I am cited as an authority about anything in that bastion of accumulated knowledge, Wikipedia, is on the subject of alien space bats. In 2005, you understand, I reviewed a novel by Ken Macleod entitled Learning The World. I had some significant issues with it, not least of all that the reader had to know the author’s world – the context of his book’s composition – before they could get much of anything out of its mirthful reinvention of the first contact scenario. (We might, on the topic of jokes requiring foreknowledge, be reminded of another recent controversy.)
What struck me as I read Greg Bear’s latest novel Hull Zero Three was that it could easily have shared a title with Macleod’s: told from the first person perspective of a character known as Teacher, it is set on a huge space-faring object, Ship, which consists of three 12km spurs attached to a central moon it mines for fuel. Ship, dispatched centuries ago from the Oort cloud a light-year from the Earthling Sun, traverses the eons in search of a new home for its biological cargo. When Teacher first awakes from Dreamtime, a sort of Ship-directed programmatic primer for its bio-chambered crew, he is thoroughly confused – nothing, from Ship’s untended corridors to its feral defense mechanisms, make sense to him. He, like us, must learn his world.
Bear’s earlier work has left me cold. Most noticeably, Eon (1985) was an awful slog of a novel, praised for the fidelity of its science but a thorough-going failure in terms of its art. What Bear has achieved in Hull Zero Three is therefore doubly impressive: as Jonathan Wright has noted at, er, SFX, Bear has pared down his writing, and his exposition, to its very essentials – and in so doing has written something not just readable but at times rather compelling. Ship is, as Teacher learns, a vast, unknowable thing – the novel provides answers for many of the central puzzles it poses, but at the same time leaves room for impressionistic wonder. There is no doubt that Ship operates to rules, but Bear resists writing them all out verbatim. This makes not just for a better novel, but for oddly more impressive speculation.
Bear’s tactic is, however, a timeworn one: he sets up a number of questions early on and then refuses to answer them. There are a little over 300 pages in this novel, and as late as the 266th a character can say, “But maybe – just maybe – we have enough clues that we can finally make good decisions.” One question – revolving around a mysterious silvery phantom which appears to Teacher but to no one else – is literally not answered until the final page, and then only hesitantly. To Bear’s credit, few are the moments when the reader audibly groans at this almost endless tease – he manages tension particularly well throughout the novel, and achieves a level of characterisation amongst the almost unrecognisably augmented and engineered shipmates with whom Teacher casts his lot – the long-limbed engineer, Nell, or the space age bouncer-with-a-conscience, Tsinoy – which manages to intrigue if not quite engage. Within the confines of a hard SF novel, these kinds of treat are relatively rare fruits.
On the other hand, Hull Zero Three cannot quite escape its own structures. A book which is, half-way through, still describing scenes and situations to a bemused and disoriented reader and narrator with impressi0nistic partiality is failing quite to work as a living, breathing novel. At one point, we’re told, “This much is clear. Ship makes people and stuff as it goes along.” [pg. 114] This is all very well, but in this context a novel structured by problems and solutions will grow preponderantly messy. In the course of the second half of the novel, Bear reins in matters – we learn more about why Teacher doesn’t recognise the malfunctioning Ship, why life-size antibodies are intent are murdering all the organic matter they can find, and what Ship programmes its crews to do in the event that the shadowy clique known as Destination Guidance selects a planet for colonisation which is already populated. But to one extent or another, by this time Hull Zero Three is simply clearing up its own mess. Like most messes, the reader wants to see it cleaned – but that’s not quite the same thing as admiring the artistry of the cleaner.
Much of Bear’s novel rests on the concept of the seedship as toolkit. “Not all suitable planets are going to be exactly like Earth,” Teacher realises. “So colonists come in a variety of styles, suited to particular environments.” [pg. 203] Hull Zero Three asks what the implications might be for and of beings who have learned their world not through direct experience but purposeful imprinting. This is a novel, in the best tradition of hard SF, about nothing except itself – but in these times of systemic crisis devoid of alternative systems, Bear’s questions and answers strike broader chords. Gary Wolfe has pointed out the novel’s weird similarities to Alice in Wonderland – in one vivid and memorable scene, Teacher encounters a caterpillar-like creature taken and trades Caroll lyrics with her – and Hull Zero Three seems to me mostly to be about how we can any longer, and with moral purpose, create new worlds for ourselves. If all this doesn’t quite hang together as neatly as a Clarke winner perhaps must, the jury have nevertheless rewarded a novel of intellectual, emotional and even literary merit. And you don’t have to be in on the joke to get it.