I’ve always found Greg Bear’s output a bit hit and miss but the hits really nail it. In the realm of post-Arthur Clarke hard SF, few authors can do it like Bear does. The Forge of God is a masterpiece of a first contact story, one of my favourite ever along with Clarke’s Rendezous with Rama, Will Eisner’s great Life on Another Planet and Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. Novels like Blood Music, Eon and Eternity (and even Hegira) should go without saying.
As a result, I didn’t really have any specific expectations about Hull Zero Three. I knew I wanted to read it but didn’t feel a lot of pressure. Turns out I should have had. I was blown away. The novel starts off with familiar SF tropes, the generation ship and colonisation etc, and then develops into a taut SF thriller. For most authors that might be enough but not for Bear. The cheesy, hopeful tone of the opening gives way to distinctly vague and unreliable first person narration as the protagonist, Teacher, one of the colonists, finds himself awakened in the ship, bound for a new planet, and slowly realises that things are wrong. The novel, then, slowly transforms itself into a discourse on authorship, identity, consciousness and theology that, at the same time, manages to maintain its momentum as a thriller.
Bear employs all the advantages afforded him by the conventions of first person narration remarkably and subtly. There are minute and easily unnoticeable references that give clues to the plot, amidst an ongoing meditation on the ways we perceive language, identity and consciousness and the primeval religious impulse. The suspense is almost unbearable, as is the sense of unease and the palpable existential frustration of an advanced intellect faced with ignorance, enforced amnesia and lack of information. Hull Zero Three reads, in parts, like a meditation on Platonic thought, a combination of The Cloud of Unknowing and Augustine’s Confessions, Clarke’s Childhood’s End and films like Pandorum and Event Horizon with the timeless quality of a morality play. We are given an inkling of the wonderful mix of theological speculation and hard SF themes that will be Hull Zero Three in the division of the novel into three parts, entitled The World, The Flesh and The Devil. Long-time SF readers and enthusiasts might recognise those as the title of the amazing book by the scientist J.D. Bernal, in which he postulates a space habitat similar to the one Bear describes in the novel. Bear, however, while still alluding to Bernal, also harks back to the Christian background of the phrase, the distractions and temptations posed to the soul (to the rational soul, according to Bernal, who also knowingly reflects along those lines) by its three main enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil.
Bear dramatises the process of anamnesis in a very interesting way, having made it an integral part of the plot itself. Throughout the novel, Teacher struggles with seemingly randomly triggered recollections of both facts and language itself. He keeps remembering words that, to him, are without referent. In a very Platonic sense, he intuits that there is a sense of purpose to his creation, which becomes remembered gradually. Since those that have been awakened do not have any recollection and therefore knowledge of those responsible for planning and controlling the mission, the result is pure theological speculation. Teacher actually engages in a literal act of exegesis with the texts left by other characters that have been through the same experience, once he realises that he is one of a long line of Teachers who have attempted to find out what has gone wrong with the mission and the ship itself. The Platonic/Gnostic preoccupations of the novel (the seeming creation of the colonists by a fallible god, the process of return to perfection) are well thematised and pursued within the action-packed plot.
So, yes, I really enjoyed Hull Zero Three, and all the more so because it was so unexpected (and I don’t mean that we can’t expect novels of this calibre from Greg Bear). It was far more economical, solid and convincing than something like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which shares some of its themes, but which I found verbose and incontinent and ultimately anticlimactic…Oh, well. Definitely a candidate for one of my novels of the year, Hull Zero Three is a must-read for serious readers of speculative fiction.