Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear

Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
Published: Orbit, 2010
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Book:
A starship hurtles through the emptiness of space. Its destination - unknown. Its purpose - a mystery.
Now, one man wakes up. Ripped from a dream of a new home - a new planet and the woman he was meant to love in his arms - he finds himself wet, naked, and freezing to death. The dark halls are full of monsters, but trusting other survivors he meets might be the greater danger.

All he has are questions -- Who is he? Where are they going? What happened to the dream of a new life? What happened to Hull 03?

All will be answered, if he can survive the ship. “

I’ve never actually gotten around to reading any Greg Bear, despite his popularity as an author.  When I saw Hull Zero Three was nominated for the Campbell Award this year, I thought it would be a good time to check out his work.  While I don’t think Hull Zero Three is for everyone, I did rather enjoy it. 

My Thoughts:
I think this is the kind of book that some people are going to love, and others are going to hate. I can see where the narrative style and the structure of the story might be intriguing to some readers but alienating to others. It seemed, to me, like a combination of a Big Dumb Object story, a sci-fi horror story, a cinematic thriller, and an adventure RPG.  While none of these elements seem particularly original, I felt that they melded together to make an entertaining story.
Hull Zero Three is narrated in first person and in present tense, from the mind of the confused, disoriented protagonist called ‘Teacher’.  He doesn’t really know what’s going on when he wakes up, and what few memories he has are jumbled up and disconnected.  The present tense helped to give the situation a sense of immediacy, and the near-blank-slate main character allows the reader to explore and learn alongside the narrator.  Though Teacher is not an incredibly deep character, Bear managed to keep him from seeming too generic or bland. Seeing the story through Teachers mind, as he collected clues, met allies and enemies, and fought or fled from monstrous creatures, felt very much like experiencing a story-based adventure game.
The downside for this type of adventure is that neither the characterization nor the plot has a whole lot of depth. While Teacher and several other characters do have distinct basic personalities, they know almost nothing about themselves and their purpose in the ship.  As a result, it seemed like almost all of the conflict and activity in the story was external and physical.  Even the characters’ personal journeys of self-discovery were externalized, as they gathered clues about their identities and roles in the current desperate situation.
As a result, a lot of the story consists of the characters’ reactions to physical obstacles and dangers.  The writing style is rather plain and terse, and it focuses on the physical and visual aspects of the story—descriptions of the environment, the deadly creatures, and the actions of the characters.  The story moves along quickly, though I felt it lacked the character connection that might have come from a more introspective approach. I think that this style of story would be very suited to a film adaptation.  (Actually, I’ve heard it has similarities to a certain film, Pandorum. I haven’t seen it, though, so I can’t really comment.)
I found myself liking the book more the further I read through it.  I didn’t find the beginning of the story to be very compelling. Since Teacher had no idea what was happening around him, some of the difficulties he struggled through seemed to be random and illogical. Information about Teacher, his companions, and their purpose is given only very gradually, and the story was much more interesting when the larger picture started to come together.  I felt that this started to happen a little too late in the story, though, as there was then little time to explore the ideas about morality and identity that were being raised.  I think I would have preferred to see more time spent on the end of the story than the beginning, though I did appreciate the eventual explanations for Teacher’s journey.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Hull Zero Three seems to be highly influenced by previous science fiction, movies, and video games.  The reader slowly learns about the situation and the characters through the mind and narration of a near-blank-slate protagonist called Teacher, who has just awakened with very little knowledge or memories.  Most of the novel focuses on the physical environment and actions of the characters as they struggle to survive.  The story eventually draws together to an interesting conclusion, but I felt that the explanations came a little too late in the novel.  Altogether, I thought this was an entertaining, but not groundbreaking, novel.

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