In Ship we trust? A motley crew of amnesiac astronauts battle forces they barely comprehend in Greg Bear’s ‘Hull Zero Three’

April 1, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 1, 2015

Greg Bear is a prolific, award-winning American science fiction author. His 2010 novel, Hull Zero Three, is the story of a traveler aboard an interstellar sleeper ship who struggles to end a conflict that threatens the vessel and its passengers.

The Ship of Hull Zero Three (it’s otherwise nameless) is akin to the Argonos of Richard Paul Russo’s Ship of Fools in that both vessels are wandering the stars, their missions unclear. But Argonos is a generation ship, capable of sustaining a fully conscious and active population for years upon end. It can also travel from one star to another in a matter of months.

Ship travels at a much lower velocity; a single journey could last hundreds of years, after which it might lack the fuel to continue to another destination. This, at least in part, explains why Bear’s vehicle is a sleeper ship. To conserve air, water, food and other supplies, few if any of the people on Ship are awake. This changes, of course, when people are needed to deal with an emergency or some other important event, such as an impending planetfall.

In fact, Ship doesn’t necessarily convey people as such — rather, it has a genetic Catalog and the equipment and resources needed to grow the bodies and brains that it needs to handle the situation. The vessel can also implant memories and knowledge in the minds it creates.

But Ship’s voyage has gone awry. The vessel has stalled in the void as unknown forces battle for control of its systems.

In Ship of Fools, which I wrote about earlier this week, the voyagers had suffered from a kind of collective amnesia: Definitive records of Argonos’s age, origin and mission have been lost, as have coordinates for the handful of populated planets that it’s visited in the past. Aboard Bear’s Ship, the amnesia is much more literal: At the start of the book, when the narrator awakens, he doesn’t even know his name. This is partly because the onboard conflict has damaged the memory banks.

The narrator — many of the other characters call him Teacher — spends much of the story recovering knowledge from different sources. Some of it comes from various clues scattered about the ship; some of it from recovered memories; some from other people he encounters, many of whom also suffer from confusion and amnesia; and some from the written records kept by other individuals who have been summoned to restore order to Ship. (Many of the would-be rescuers have died.) But, just as many parts of the vessel are hazardous, not every person — nor every memory — can be trusted.

Hull Zero Three resembles Pandorum, the obscure 2009 science fiction-horror movie about a sleeper ship. (Aboard that movie’s very traditional kind of sleeper ship, the passengers and crew literally were in hibernation; memory loss that results from revival from deep sleep is a key plot point in Pandorum.) Both works involve amnesia, a malfunctioning vessel intended to establish what could be the first-ever human colony in another star system, and strange genetically engineered creatures that threaten the more conventional humans aboard the ship.

Bear’s book, however, is much more ambitious than the movie, at least in part because novels don’t require multi-million-dollar special-effects budgets. For instance, the tripartite vessel’s Hull 01 suffers from erratic gravity, as shown in this early scene in which Teacher and his new companions float from one part of the hull to another:

The closer I get to the opening, the stronger the breeze, until it becomes a wind. The three big fellows reach the hole first. They form up like an acrobatic team, gripping arms and shoulders and spanning the tube with their feet to brace themselves.

The girl bumps into their arms and hangs on. Her hair lifts. “Good,” she says. They hold her out by one spindly arm — and let her go. She pushes her feet together and vanishes into the hole as if diving into a pool.

Bouncing along the tube, I try to hold back, skidding hands and feet, but I’m alone and it’s not enough. I arrive at the barrier of arms and legs. I have no idea what’s causing the suction or where the opening is taking us — but I’m almost equally concerned that something will reach out and snatch me from behind.

I reach out. “Do it quick!” I shout. But I don’t really mean it.

The brown fellow with scarlet markings — scarlet! lovely word — takes hold of my arm. The team rearranges, and together, despite my clinging, desperate hands, they drop me into a roaring tunnel.

I fly through. The tunnel opens like the bell of a trumpet to a bigger space. A moist, lateral wind has taken hold of me. I’m flying. I look back and see the team of three flow one by one into the chasm. I can’t see the girl, but the three are about fifty meters behind me. We move along at the same speed. The opening vanishes behind us in the murk. The bigger space is dimly illuminated. I can finally see that it’s a conduit — another curved, circumnavigating tube, but broader, deeper.

Circumnavigating. Going all the way around…Ship.

Bear explores an important moral issue in Hull Zero Three. Teacher and his allies must decide if there are actions that they won’t take to ensure the survival of their own lives, of their political faction (for lack of a better term) and of the entire Ship. It’s an open question as to whether the protagonists arrive at the correct resolution.

Much as with Ship of Fools, I wanted to like Hull Zero Three more than I ended up doing. This is a science fiction novel that’s heavier on the science than Russo’s book, which emphasized political, social and religious issues (and a few horror tropes) while discussing little in the way of scientific or technological matters.

But in both books, I found few sympathetic characters, and neither the sheer novelty of their circumstances nor my general enthusiasm for the science fiction genre kept me riveted to the story. Once again, I can offer only a lukewarm recommendation for Hull Zero Three to science fiction fans, and none at all for those who don’t already belong to that group.

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