I looked forward intensely to receiving and reading Hull Zero Three, and I was not disappointed. First and foremost, this is a cracking good story with all the elements of exciting, provocative hard SF. The nameless narrator is rudely awakened from pleasant dreams of arrival on a lovely hospitable new planet, surrounded by friends and with his also nameless partner by his side. Suddenly he finds himself bruised, terrified, and freezing, and literally has to run for his life. Instead of a calm, controlled return to consciousness as planned, he gradually discovers that the starship in which he has been travelling 500 light years to colonise a new planet has been ripped, blasted, burned, and thrown severely out of control. Gravity comes and goes as the hull starts and stops spinning; sometimes it is bright, others pitch black; some areas are freezing cold, others full of unimaginable volumes of water. Worst of all, the corridors are roamed by a nightmare menagerie of deadly monsters, differing in every imaginable way except for their single-minded devotion to destroying human life. Under these circumstances, our hero (or perhaps anti-hero) finds that survival from moment to moment is almost impossible; yet he must explore the ship, evaluate the damage, find out how it was caused and do something to restore order if possible. Before the unlikely denouement, Greg Bear peps up the elements of traditional SF with psychology, biology, and even religion of the most primitive - and perhaps fundamental - kind.
"Hull Zero Three" comprises 304 pages of text, split into three main sections: "The Flesh", "The Devil", and "The World" (a typically Biblical allusion for those with that sort of background). It is quite hard to put down once you get sucked in to wondering how the narrator is going to get off the page alive, and gets even more compulsive as you begin to grasp some of the ever more substantial hints and strands of meaning that appear quite early on. As one might expect from such a seasoned and cultured author, there are all sorts of echoes of other SF books (and other sources of many kinds). The generation ship context has, of course, been thoroughly explored by many writers from Heinlein and Herbert to Alastair Reynolds. However, "Hull Zero Three" is strongly evocative of Frank Herbert's wonderful (but inexplicably neglected) masterpiece "Destination: Void" - not least through the regular references to "Ship" as a kind of person, rather than a huge amalgamation of machinery. Then there is the typically dry remark, "He tosses out three corpses, dry as husks. I don't check to see if I'm one of them". Definitely a strong redolence of Algis Budrys' classic "Rogue Moon" there... And, not to give too much away, one of the most unexpected twists is reminiscent of a short story by A E Van Vogt.
I considered awarding four stars because somehow "Hull Zero Three" didn't strike me as a masterpiece so much as a really good piece of craftsmanship by an author who is used to turning them out. That's perhaps unfair, because there is something in the essence of the book that is remorselessly prosaic, factual, unexalted. Without having very much in common plot-wise, it most reminds me of the "Alien" movies. Unlike most of the heroes of "Golden Age" SF (half a century ago), none of the people in "Hull Zero Three" seem to be in control of anything, nor to have much idea what is going on or even where (or when) they are. It's a scary, chaotic, synaesthetic roller-coaster that finally dumps you out in a reflective mood, your mind buzzing with ethical questions and perhaps even doubts about the human nature you thought was so solid and certain.