by Greg Bear
Mystery in Space!
Poor Teacher. He wakes up cold and naked and without a memory, his only companion a mean little girl, on board a gigantic spaceship called “Ship”… whatever should he do? Why, he should move forward of course, forward, ever forward! Otherwise gigantic monsters out of some monster’s imagination will collect and/or devour him. He needs to figure out who he is, what his purpose may be, and what the heck is happening with Ship, or he’ll die. And so begins his brief and rather frenetic adventure. Or rather, his “adventure” – because this is less of an adventure and more like a nightmare that he cannot escape.
Greg Bear is one of the most respected ‘hard science’ writers of science fiction currently working. He’s probably some sort of genius scientist in his spare time, like Alastair Reynolds. But I didn’t really get a sense of hard science being central to the story. Nor, unlike other reviewers, did I feel this was an exploration of a Big Dumb Object. All the pleasures of both things are there, certainly. Fascinating science that makes my head spin and a BDO that is awesome in scope and also functions as a terrible haunted house in space, full of deadly traps and creatures just waiting to kill off poor Teacher. Again and again. Sorry, that last sentence was spoilerish – but in an ambiguous way that makes you want to read this book, right?
Despite the hard science and the BDO, I think the author is mainly interested in exploring things like Identity and Memory. The novel and its protagonist continually contemplate what makes us who we are – whether it is how we act in the here & now or whether it is about what we have done in our lives, our context, our relationship to ourselves, and how those things impact how we move forward. Ever forward! Teacher is a tabula rasa, which can prove frustrating at times and amusing at other times – particularly when he realizes he has just said or thought a word that is new to him. But I think that Teacher, whether frustrating or amusing, is mainly a blank slate so that the reader can contemplate what is needed to fill in those blanks.
The novel is fun but it is also surprisingly cerebral. It has action and wonder and mystery and it has some endearing characters and it has plenty of fearsome beasts, all of that fun stuff. But this is more of a novel of contemplation than one of adventure. The protagonist is ever moving forward, trying to survive… but I spent most of my time musing on all the moving parts that make up a human, that create the human condition itself. I think that that is exactly what Bear intended when writing Hull Zero Three.