Let me get the annoying thing out of the way first. This collection was collated by Reed himself, as far as I can tell, with a bit of additional material to bridge the stories (and adding to “the resident confusion” apparently), and some stories altered as well to better fit with the others. There are a lot of typos, and a number of problems that I would have expected proofreading to catch. This didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the stories, but I found it really quite frustrating. Also, rather than having headers that give the name of each story, the header is a number: so it might have “5 95” at the top of the page, which tells you you’re on p95 overall and section 5 on whichever story is on that page. But it doesn’t tell me which story! Argh. Anyway.
There’s no point in talking about every story; that would be tiresome. I realised as I read the last story that the collection as a whole rather put me in mind of Christopher Priest’s The Islanders. They have nothing in common in terms of themes or characters or setting, but there is a certain way in which their methods of connecting disparate elements feels similar. In Priest’s work, the same character might turn up on several different islands and you learn about them a little more. Here, there are a couple of characters who recur in a big way (Quee Lee especially, and Perri), and several others who appear intermittently. Additionally, the Great Ship is so very big that each story is set in a different place – and sometimes not even on the Great Ship – so that, like the Dream Archipelago for Priest, it’s the same place but very different.
The Great Ship is just that: a spaceship that is at one time described as being the size of Uranus. And there’s very few who live on the surface – which would be big, but not that impressive: rather, the entire innards of the Ship is honeycombed with a vast array of habitats, meaning that the Ship can support countless billions. For whatever reason it was launched into the universe, travelling along, and then humanity managed to board and claim it. But it’s not just a human ship; any species, as long as they’ve got the cash to pay their way, can come along for the ride. And what a ride: they’re doing the ultimate Grand Tour, around the Milky Way.
All of the stories are entirely standalone. There is no reason to read this collection in the order it’s presented. Except that Reed claims to have it in some sort of chronological order (and certainly the two bookending stories feel like a beginning and an end), and there is something very satisfying about feeling like you’re progressing through the history of the Great Ship and its passengers. And everyone is a passenger, whether they’re paying or working their way. I like that there are stories about rich folks as well as people who work on the ship; it wasn’t quite balanced, but it’s better than simply seeing the idle wealthy. There are stories of action and adventure; stories about relationships, and solitude, and time; there is death and birth and just getting on with things.
One of the odd things about these stories is the issue of time. Pretty much everyone on the Ship is functionally immortal. No diseases, no ageing; you get hurt but as long as your brain is intact it doesn’t even matter if you die. So ideas like your husband being away for a year (or ten), or a journey taking thirty years, or having to hide for centuries… those words, those time-concepts, are basically irrelevant. I didn’t end up with much of a sense of grandeur or the epic sweep of time because the numbers are so big that my mind just rebelled and basically say those as weeks, perhaps months. Which doesn’t make the stories any less interesting but perhaps is not the response Reed is hoping for.
I do intend to read the Great Ship novels… but I might go read something on a slightly smaller scale first…