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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Off the Bookshelf: Hull Zero Three, Reamde, New Space Opera 2

by Ken Newquist / March 12, 2012

With the holidays long over and the major work rush of January and early February completed, I've had a chance to dive back into fiction. As has been the case for the last few years, science fiction dominates my reading list, but historical fiction and thrillers keep sneaking in.

Hull Zero Three

Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three is a hard SF mystery novel set in deep space, in which the mystery is not who killed someone, but who killed a starship. It takes place on a generational starship, and opens with an unnamed protagonist who wakes from hibernation to find that the ship is badly off-course and terribly damaged. The colonization mission he'd been preparing for in "Dreamtime" is gone; in its place is a waking nightmare in which he doesn't even know his name.

Hull Zero Three finds this "teacher" -- as he's called by the other characters -- fighting his way past hellspawned ship guardians in an attempt to find out exactly what went wrong. Reviewers have compared it to the Dennis Quaid film Pandorum (2009), and rightly so -- both share similar setups involving generational starships, amnesia and a mission gone horribly wrong. But Bear, as is his want, asks bigger questions about humanity's manifest destiny in the galaxy ... and what it would do to achieve that destiny.

Some have complained that the 336 page book is too short, but I think it was just the right size given Bear's pacing. Making it much longer would have needlessly padded out the book with extraneous details and subplots. After years of reading The Wheel of Time and A Song of Fire and Ice, the book's focus is something I appreciated.

Reamde

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors, but I haven't kept up with his recent work. The Baroque Cycle was a bust for me -- I couldn't get through the historically dense dialogue of Quicksilver. It seemed that Anathem, his science fiction follow up to that series, was more of the same, so I avoided it. With Reamde Stephenson returns to the modern era and to the fast, engaging writing style that made Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age such great reads.

The book is about a virus that is infecting computers belonging to players of a massively-multiplayer online game. The virus encrypts the players' hard drive, and then the hackers behind the virus demand a ransom in order to decrypt it. I'm only about a hundred pages into the book, but it seems like Stephenson's doing for MMORPGs what he did for encryption in Cryptonomicon: turn a highly geeky pursuit into a compelling read.

My problem with the book right now isn't the prose, it's the size. I got the hardcover version for Christmas, and I've found it's awkward to carry back and forth to work. While I've always said I won't give up print books, I find myself wishing I'd gotten a digital copy of the book instead. The iPad makes reading digital books a pleasure, and it's a heck of a lot easier to take with me.

The New Space Opera 2

I don't know why I keep buying short story anthologies. I tell myself it's a great way to sample a cross section of new authors, and there's some truth to that. But in practice I don't like short fiction much: I like to really dig into a good book, and with short fiction the story is over just as I'm getting into it. Reading a good anthology is even worse than reading an average one; it's like getting your heart broken a dozen times instead of once.

That's why the The New Space Opera 2 keeps popping on and off of my reading lists. I read a story or two, and if they're good, I go and find more books by that author. If not, my momentum is killed, and the book goes back on the shelf for a few more months. This is why it takes me years to finish an anthology and why I should really just quit while I'm behind. And yet ... I did buy the book...

The original New Space Opera anthology felt more like The New Transhumanist than true space opera. It had too many mind-bending stories about future humans warping themselves into unrecognizable constructs, and not enough featuring starships exchanging turbolaser broadsides or intergalactic agents undermining evil empires.

The New Space Opera 2 hews closer to the genre that inspired it. My favorite story so far is Cory Doctorow's "To Go Boldly", a tribute and parody to the spirit of Star Trek/em> that asks some fundamental questions about the implications of transporter technology. The current story I'm reading, "To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves" by Jay Lake appears to be about deep space mutiny, in which the captain is rebelling against a sentient ship.