BOOK REVIEW: "Hull Zero Three" by Greg Bear (2010)

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

Hull Zero Three revolves around the reworking of an old SF trope, the generation starship, a theme used most famously by Heinlein in his 1941 story “Universe.” The penultimate achievement of human engineering, Ship is a colossal vessel with three twelve-kilometer hulls attached to a moon-sized piece of rock and ice that it processes into fuel and materials. Creating gravity through centrifugal spin, Ship is traveling 500 light years for more than thirty centuries at 20% the speed of light.

There will be spoilers in this review.

The novel impresses as a classic work of science fiction, an intellectual mystery or puzzle that portrays the protagonist, Teacher, as he and a ragtag group of characters wander through the vast hulls trying to unravel the mysteries of their existence. The book can be confusing as we, like the protagonist, struggle to figure out what’s going on.

Teacher begins the novel in Dreamtime, an idyllic slumber that Ship uses to train colonists, when Teacher and his lover prepare for their duties. Teacher is responsible for Ship’s history, training, and culture, and his lover its biology. In Dreamtime Ship reaches a new planet, and Teacher and the other colonists prepare to settle the new world.

Then Teacher is ripped free from a cocoon-like sac and thrown into complete chaos. Awakening should be a joyous time, when the colonists reach their destination, but something has gone wrong. Ship is sick; it’s gravity is inconsistent; Teacher has to chase the warmth through the hull to avoid freezing to death, and monstrous factors – that clean and repair Ship -- try to kill him and the other people he meets.
As Teacher’s odyssey continues, he becomes an everyman of sorts, Ship a microcosm of the universe, and his journey the universal attempt to understand himself and his existence. Teacher remembers that the Earth was a mess when they began their trip, and that Ship was an attempt to preserve the human race. He discovers information to fill in the gaps and inaccuracies in his recall. He sees freezer tanks in which hundreds of Teachers, mostly dead, are stored and realizes that he’s not a unique individual; despite his memories of life before entering the ship, he was not born and then frozen. He was manufactured or produced and has been manufactured dozens or even hundreds of times.
Ship, or factions on it, keep making Teachers (that are prone to getting killed), and imprinting them with prefabricated memories. The humans on board are given a false back-story so that when they arrive at their destination they will be fully rounded individuals. The teachers have to teach something, and their message depends on the sort of world they find and the cultural norms, rules, behaviors, and courtesies they will need to survive. Humans need a history and culture to function.

Teacher forms a motley group of companions, including a clever young girl, a spidery woman Nell, another Teacher (his physical twin who is mentally very different), Tomchin, an enormous yellow mutant, and Tsinoy, a giant tracker who turns out to have a female personality and who can rearrange the sinews and muscles of her body to change shape.
They face many unanswered question during their odyssey. Why is the ship malfunctioning? Was there a war on board? An accident? Sections of the ship were damaged by fire, and Teacher and some of his companions see a bright nebula when they are in hull control. Did a supernovae damage the ship?

The Ship does not transport frozen humans or even embryos. It carries “Bio-generators hooked up to a database of all possible life-forms, Earth life modified to occupy the far-flung reaches of all practical evolution” (203). The Ship’s instruction manual covers every possible contingency, and the type of people it generates depends on the sort of planet they land on. It contains a long catalog of clades, different human types and other creatures. Bear does a marvelous job describing the monstrous creatures and beings that Ship produces. One of the things I like about the novel is Bear’s creativity in designing strange creatures. That aspect of the novel reminds me of Jack Vance’s Dragon Masters or a video game.

Destination Guidance has the task of choosing a planet for Ship to colonize. Since it may carry the last surviving echelon of the human race, Ship is designed to carry out its mission no matter what sort of planet they find, even if it has to destroy an existing ecosystem. Destination Guidance initially picked a planet that was already inhabited, which caused Ship to manufacture monsters to depopulate that planet and open it to human habitation. The genocide that type of colonization would create causes a war to break out, as other elements onboard want to journey to an uninhabited planet.

In one central episode Teacher journeys to meet “Mother,” who is in charge of biological generation. The young girl that travels with Teacher and the others idolizes Mother, and takes him to her forest bower. Mother has created hundreds of girls identical to the one traveling with Teacher. This episode is loaded with significance as they cross a massive tube before the forest bower – symbolically a massive vagina -- emanating cold. Mother resides in an Eden-like forest bower, but the trees drip poison. Mother has a giant serpent-like body lined with breasts, which she uses to feed the girls she generates. She is a combination of Venus, Eve, and the serpent from Genesis. Teacher has to ask himself: what sort of clade does Mother fulfill, and what sort of planet would her clade colonize?

Mother has the face of Teacher’s lover from Dreamtime, who in the dream scenario was destined to be a biologist. The fact that his lover is also his Mother adds a layer of Oedipal complexity to the narrative.

The novel has many layers of mysticism, much like Arthur C. Clarke in his better work. Ship resembles a failed or flawed god that does a poor job at creating them, but at the same time protects them from the vacuum, radiation, and the storms of interstellar dust that shower the hull. Late in the story we find out that there is some being on board the ship – some ethereal silvery being – that wants the ship to develop more of a conscience (much like an angel at least in its symbolic function). The silvery being – which Mother and her children deny the existence of – appears to come from outside the ship. It’s unclear from where. From a future human civilization that has developed faster space travel? From an alien civilization? The silvery being helps the narrator survive at one point, and appears to have the goal of preventing the ship from committing genocide on an alien world.

Bear’s novel is powerful and ambitious on a number of different levels. The science is accurate and well extrapolated. The novel is well written and contains well-rounded characters. Hull Zero Three succeeds as a classic work of hard SF, resolving its mysteries and explaining clearly and logically what happened to Ship, as well as optimistically offering a solution to the tragic problems it raises. Long-term SF readers will appreciate how effectively Bear rethinks many of the traditional tropes of generation starships. In generation starship stories the ship always seems to malfunction. The society within the ship generally degenerates into savagery. Strange mutants inhabit the ship. Bear nonetheless manages to make the subgenre fresh and poses new intellectual questions about this type of story. It possesses symbolic complexity, with layers of mythology, from the failed god of the ship to the Oedipal complexity of Mother to the silvery being with a conscience; the novel would make a good thesis project for an English major. The novel contemplates important thematic concerns, such as the reason for evil, and interrogates the important moral issues raised by interplanetary colonization.
The only major criticism I have is that the novel is confusing at times, especially in the first half. Bear gives us endless imagery of his massive, labyrinth-like ship and its monstrous inhabitants, and sometimes the reader can get utterly confused and buried beneath the descriptions.


Yes, if you’re interested in complicated and well-conceived works of hard SF. Overall, I think this novel stands out as one of the stronger hard SF novels of recent years.


Staffwriter Robert Bee is a professional librarian and a freelance writer living in New Jersey. He can be reached at