Hull Zero Three
by Greg Bear
A man awakens in a dark room to find a child pulling him to his feet and telling him to hurry. The room is freezing. There are bodies everywhere. He follows the girl who awakened him only to see her apparently killed my some sort of creature. He is alone, he does not know where he is or even what his name is. He only knows that he is a Teacher.
So begins Hull Zero Three, the latest novel by Greg Bear. We and Teacher soon find out that he is on a starship, traveling slower than light and on a centuries-long voyage to another star system, and that something has gone very badly wrong. We also learn that “Teacher” is not unique. There have been other Teachers before him and all of them are dead. Will his fate be different.
In many ways Hull Zero Three is about discovery and exploration. At the start, Teacher knows no more about what is going on than we the readers do. He even has trouble remembering basic words and concepts (like what those tiny points of light outside the ship are). He learns about the situation on the ship as we do. And the situation is complicated.
It becomes apparently quite rapidly that the ship is damaged. Less rapidly we learn that a war has taken place, and perhaps is still underway. Teacher and the companions he finds along the way must both determine what happened to the ship and which side they are on in the war.
I enjoyed the book but there were two minor things that annoyed me. This requires talking about the endng, so I’ll continue after the spoiler bird.
Just before the final section of the book there is a scene set several hundred years in the future of the book. The ship has reached its destination and an archaeological expedition is exploring the ship to determine what happened to it during its voyage. (The damage from the accident and the results of the war being obvious). The thing is, this scene immediately lets us (the readers) know that the ship survived. There is suddenly no suspense. We know everything is going to work out so things suddenly go from “will they survive?” to “how did they survive?”; a subtle but distinct difference.
While I really like the idea of a “ship’s archaeological expedition” (a sub-light interstellar voyage would take as much time as much of human history so such a thing would be needed) but I felt it removed a great deal of tension at the climax of the book.
The other thing that annoys me is a silvery being that appears a handful of times in the book. The first time it shows up it takes a book from Teacher. (Teacher uses these books to write down what he finds in each of his “lives”. When he dies, his replacement (hopefully) finds the book and reads it, giving him an advantage on his next “life”.) Later on, Teacher’s life is saved when someone or something (presumably the silvery being) kills a creature attacking him with a laser. Some other characters acknowledge the being exists while others deny it.
What bothers me is that the being is an unneeded deus ex machina. There are dozens of books in the book so it doesn’t matter if one is lost and Teacher is attacked many times by creatures and escapes so having this one killed by a laser does nothing but draw attention to the silvery being.
One of the things that we and Teacher learn along the way is that the ship contains a database of genetic material with which it is able to custom-build life forms. These would primarily be used to “customize” the human (and presumably animal) templates being carried on-board to match them to the ship’s destination planet when it arrived.
Additionally, if the destination planet turned out to have a dominant life-form of its own, the ship would produces a vast array of deadly, biological killing machines with which to wipe the planet clean and prepare it for human occupation.
The ship’s destination was inhabited and the ship was producing these deadly creatures. But some parts of the ship thought that it was wrong to wipe out a planet just so the humans on the ship could colonize it. This was what caused the war.
The theory Teacher develops (which is at best only partially confirmed) is that the silvery being is a more-advanced human who had left Earth centuries after the ship did, wanting to make sure that the potentially destructive potential of the ship is never used but not wanting to directly interfere with its mission. As it turns out, Teacher and the people he befriends are able to locate a new, better planet that does not have indigenous life of its own and they are able to direct the ship to it.
I’m not sure what function this “advanced human” serves the story. The implication is that Teacher would have made the same decisions even without it being there. It seems to be implying that humans will make the wrong decisions unless they are prodded from the outside by more “advanced” beings, but that seems to be a somewhat negative attitude. I think I would have liked it better if Teacher and his companions had become the ship’s “conscience” on their own without having to have this outside influence on them.
And the story would have worked without it; the being really doesn’t add anything to the story except that implication. Which is why I’m really not sure why it is there.
Still, I enjoyed the story. I’m just not sure what that one part of it was about.