Please note this review is for Robert Reed’s 1997 novella Marrow, not the novel of the same name published in 2000.
The BDO (Big Dumb Object for the genre uninitiated) is an idea unique to science fiction. Robert Reed’s novella Marrow not only utilizes it, but encapsulates one BDO within an even larger BDO. The conceptualization receiving a flogging from the point of view of premise, the brief seventy pages do little to escape mere presentation. Interesting for world-building junkies, there is a minimum of characterization and plot to bear its weight, leading to the idea that Reed’s later novel-length expansion may be better served. But to the story:
Marrow is the story of the Ship. The size of Jupiter, it had been abandoned for billions of years by a species dubbed the Builders before being discovered and taken over by humans. Populating the living compartments with hundreds of billions of humans and aliens, the Ship heads around the Milky Way on a tour of the galaxy. Many of the technical details of the massive, hyperfiber-coated vessel a mystery, in the early going a still bigger enigma reveals itself in the form of a planet hidden in the Ship’s core. Kept a secret by the Ship’s captain, a select crew is sent to investigate, dubbing the nestled sphere Marrow. Things peaceful in the initial exploration of Marrow’s surface, hell breaks loose when a freak electrical storm destroys the group’s technology, leaving them to survive with nothing but their intelligence and gene-spliced immortality. Whether the group makes it off the encapsulated planet’s surface and back into the Ship is for the reader to discover.
The idea as big as only sci-fi can make it, Reed firmly implants the premise into the story. The people, the place (rather, PLACE), and what’s at stake are clear. Unfortunately, that is all. The group of explorers sent to explore the surface have the personalities of dry celery that generally leave a person unable to differentiate one stalk from another. I don’t think Reed intended for the reader to care about each at an emotional level, but little is done to make them distinguishable, let alone people to invest extended interest in. The other major issue of the novella is the lack of boundaries: the ship is the ship, but the phenomena possible within are unknown. Seemingly anything goes, which most often takes the wind out of any major surprise or twist—a fact most evident in the muddled conclusion wherein ‘surprise’ after ‘surprise’ piles up.
These two criticisms are the result of a single problem: not enough exposition. In order for the idea, characters, and plot to take full effect, a load more content was needed to amplify the details, provide background (i.e. boundaries), and to give the reader a chance to believe in the characters, or at least a reason to suspend their disbelief. Millennia of time occurring in a matter of pages, the cut-scene evolution of the group would likewise be better served with anchor points. By contrast Charles Stross in Palimpsest, for example, handles such definitive windows in time by stylistically defining what is happening and what has happened in the interim. Marrow feels as though it moves randomly, the windows only partially covering the same ground. In short, the novella is a skeleton that needs to be fleshed out in order for the story to have a living, breathing body.
Realizing this shortcoming, Reed revised Marrow in 2000, adding nearly 200 pages, and in essence more than tripled the content. I have not read the novel-length treatment, but am at least intrigued enough by the novella to someday give it a go. As it stands, there are other short works in the so-called ‘Great Ship Universe’ by Reed that come better recommended—Alone in the anthology Godlike Machines is a unique, interest-building story that utilizes the Ship’s potential for a purpose more focused, for example. Reed would also greatly improve his technique in the years—this is not to say Marrow is poorly written, only that Reed’s later work is noticeably improved technically.