Brian Aldiss’ 1958 Non-Stop (aka Starship) is a landmark novel in generation starship stories. Featuring a broken down ship hurtling through the blackness of space to destinations unknown, the humanity on board has reverted to various levels of primitivism, the corridors and rooms of the massive ship almost unrecognizable in an overgrowth of weeds and bushes. The novel about one man’s journey through the layers of civilization (for lack of a better term), and ultimately the enlightenment awaiting at the end, Aldiss wrote an engaging story imbued with enough profundity to make the novel worth some merit. In 2010 Greg Bear returned to the theme of a broken down generation starship to tell his own story, the dynamic Hull Zero Three the result.
Awaking from a dreamtime infused with visions of life on Earth, a man, dubbed Teacher by the little girl who frees him from his sac, emerges into the chaos of a ship filled with floating debris. Gravity coming and going in erratic ship spin-ups and spin-downs, he and the girl try to survive the various dangers hidden in the debris, as well as the strange creatures, not all of which are entirely malevolent. Losing and gaining knowledge in the form of books, their survival quest takes them slowly toward Hull Zero Three, and the bizarreness that awaits them there.
Hull Zero Three is a book that throws the reader into the deep end on the first page, and lets them swim around in Bear’s vision, bearings slowly fed out. Much of the book vivid descriptions of the strange and Weird, places and things existing in the broken down ship, Bear does a great job putting the mind’s eye into the story, the prose at times direct, and others indirect, allowing for a small sense of horror to occupy the backdrop behind. When Teacher is spun topsy-turvy on one of the ship’s random gravity spin-ups, so too is the reader’s imagination of the scene, while what’s lurking in the shadows hinted at, but only occasionally revealed.
Layers of potential meaning available, Bear eventually divulges how the ship and Teacher came to be as they are in space, but he leaves interpretation of the sub-textual meaning relatively open. Thus, while I choose to interpret the novel as a metaphor for existence on Earth (Hull Zero Three = Third Planet from the Sun, no?), there are others possible. I will let the reader decide for themselves, but suffice to say the “environmental degradation”, “overpopulation”, and “biological meddling” have brought about a situation not entirely unfamiliar. I disagree with the cynicism of how Bear concludes the novel (i.e. the opposite of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora), but I can’t deny there is plenty of evidence in support of his mindset.
In the end, for as despairing as as the novel’s conclusion is, Hull Zero Three is likely the best thing Bear has ever written. The prose more literary than his standard output, the novel feels like it has been brewing in Bear’s tank for a while, care and craft put into each line and idea. Moving in a different direction than Aldiss’ Non-Stop thematically, Bear has nevertheless successfully upgraded the brokwn down generation starship novel for the 21st century.