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Hull Zero Three: Greg Bear

At first glance with Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear has produced a familiar tale of an amnesiac waking up in what seems to be a malfunctioning spaceship. A spaceship replete with dangers both malignant and uncaring, known and unknown. Something has gone wrong.

A small confession, one of my favourite sub-genres is scifi/horror. Unfortunately it appears to be one of the most difficult to get right, Sturgeon’s Law seems to be wildly optimistic when it comes to visual scifi/horror at least. Although, quite oddly, scifi/horror is one the genres where video games seem to better represented. System Shock 1/2, Bioshock, Doom 3, Dead Space, elements of Mass Effect and various other titles are all good examples of science fiction with a liberal dose of horror.

But I digress, in the written world science fiction horror is a very niche genre. Legacy of Heurot, Unto Leviathan, some scattered short stories, adaptations of movies (my 12 year old brain is telling me that the Alan Dean Foster adaptation of Alien was good) and some expanded universe novels of various franchises are all that I can think of. However with Hull Zero Three Greg Bear has, at first glance, thrown his hat into the limited science fiction horror ring.

But has he? There is no doubt that the first half of the book is strongly reminiscent of such films as Event Horizon and Pandorum but I’m not entirely certain that the intention of Greg Bear is to go for the jugular. I believe that the similarities of this book to such films is only a product of the similarity of setting and plot, not tone or intent.

The protagonist has little memory and what memories he does have are suspect which leads to a disjointed disconnect from the environment. First person perspective and a slippery descriptive process adds to this and engenders a, presumably, intentional air of confusion. The confusion works from a science fiction point of view as it allows for the simultaneous exploration of the environment by both protagonist and reader. Puzzles and mysteries are introduced only through information available to us all. We are held tightly to our amnesiac friend through shared experiences.

Unfortunately, at least if we are considering the work from a horror perspective, because we are working in situation where the main character is ignorant about his surroundings, and because the descriptive style isn’t enough to completely flesh out the world, it is difficult to truly create a sense of fear. This is the difference between watching a horror film where everything on screen is shrouded in mist and watching a horror film whilst the screen is shrouded in mist. What is there may be frightening, but we can’t actually see it.

This may sound overly negative, but it’s only negative if we’re looking at the book from the horror perspective. In terms of science fiction and general quality, the book is much, much better. Long term space exploration has of course been explored in many other books but some of the consequences and moral dilemmas of that are explored nicely here. The writing, when shifting away from the haunted house in space trappings of the first half, is taut and lean with numerous subtleties woven through the writing.

This is a well written book with a nicely though out, if unoriginal setting, which is greatly improved by the oft overlooked consideration of the moral implications of what we may do out among the stars.
But it isn’t a scifi/horror book and this is a shame as there is a terrible lack of good scifi/horror.

Von Neumann’s War: John Ringo and Travis S. Taylor

Ah Baen. I know what I’m going to be getting when I pick a Baen book up. Action and right wing politics. Going into Von Neumann’s War we get both of these from the very start. To be fair to both authors the politics aren’t quite as jaw droppingly awful as, say, Tom Kratman, but they are pretty obvious.

Brief synopsis, Mars is turning grey, rockets scientists investigate, conclude we’re going to be invaded, hire a Hooters waitress to run part of their project, prototype rockets, satellites and weapons with 100% success rate.

Anyway, the action starts in Iraq with the alpha male of this particular book being generally awesome and fantastic whilst escorting a group of international “eggheads”. Quick note at this point, If there’s one thing this book likes more than being a good honest member of the USA, it’s being an engineer as opposed to a scientist. In his endeavours he is ably assisted by his First Sergeant who, judging from the number of superfluous references to his skin tone, is a walking embodiment of a Spinal Tap album.

The action then switches to a Hooters bar where a group of engineers and scientists discuss the reduction in Mars’ albedo, whilst being served by a waitress paying her way through university by working in Hooters. I don’t really have any problems with this, I’ve discussed enough science/technical work in pubs and bars myself. Perhaps not a Hooters but I’m sure some of the people I’ve worked with would have quite like to discuss it in hooters. I would have had more of a problem with the Hooters waitress being the main female voice through the entire book but apparently it’s based in reality (of some sort) so whilst I have my suspicions about this I’ll just let it slide. Although a Russian mail order bride does feature more heavily towards the latter half of the book. I’ll just leave that there.

Without wishing to give too much away, plans are formed, planets are investigated and technology is prototyped and pushed into production remarkably quickly.

As for the writing itself, it’s a strange combination of reasonable action scenes, extended discussion about rocket building, satellite design and weapons manufacture all wrapped around a clich├ęd story with weak characterisation, limited to no character development and a universe which is so centred on the USA I feel that reading it has earned me a green card.

Just a small example, the first 70 pages or so of the tale is the USA reacting to Mars’ changing albedo and sending a probe to Mars (very fast! as the inside cover of the jacket helpfully explains). Throughout all this time no other country appears the slightest bit worried as we go blithely about our daily business, perhaps all our telescopes have been packed away or something…

Another major issue is the pacing. The switch from “difference in Mars’ albedo” to “INVASION!” seems fairly abrupt as well as the ending being so sudden it gave me whiplash.

Good points? It’s more jingoistic rather than outright xenophobic, some of the technology is neat, that’s about it.

Bad Points? Pacing, jingoism, characterisation, author biases, a sprinkling of Deus ex Machina when needed, combination of bad science plus overly technical engineering.

I didn’t like it, which is a crying shame as I was in the mood for some light hearted pulp adventure. Hey ho.