I got this after reading Robert Reed’s collection The Greatship, which consists of course of stories all set on said Greatship. This novel takes some of those stories and characters and turns them into a more complex story.
The basic idea is that many centuries ago, humanity were lucky enough to be the ones to first spy this enormous ship hurtling between the galaxies, about to encounter the Milky Way. They sent out ships and claimed it, and after a while started to allow other sentient beings to come on board too – as passengers.
When Reed says Great, he means Great. In one of the short stories the ship is described as being roughly the size of Uranus – and entirely inhabited inside, which just gives the most mammoth scale. The title gives some indication what the focus of the story is….
There is nothing straightforward about this novel. Basically, the plot goes: twist – twist – double cross – twist – surprise! – twist – twist – KAPOW. It certainly kept me intrigued.
The one real problem I had with the book is the same one I had with the short stories. With functionally immortal human characters, Reed has no compunction about stretching the story over centuries – or millennia. And my brain just can’t deal with those sorts of spans of time, it seems, when the characters are basically standing still. (Because while the Greatship is, indeed, a ship, the point is not really the journey as it is on ships in, say, Alastair Reynolds’ books that also span a long time.) So sometimes I converted the years into days, and sometimes I just blanked on the number and read ‘an awfully long time’. And the specific time doesn’t really matter too much, so that worked out.
I guess you could call this ‘hard’ science fiction because there’s some stuff about science and all. I mention this because Reed’s bio says he’s got a reputation for ‘cutting-edge hard science fiction’. But the reality is that this story isn’t really about the science or engineering aspects of the problems facing the crew of the ship; it’s about the crew themselves, and how they react in situations and how they deal with each other and others they encounter. The rest of the bio does admit that his ‘hard science fiction’ is ‘bound together by strong characters and intricate plots’ which sounds to me like trying to avoid the idea that a man can write excellent science fiction that is, gasp, character and/or plot driven rather than entirely science-centric. This is me rolling my eyes.
In which the Champagne and Socks podcast casts on, Cranky Ladies is about to be launched, and it’s that time of year again, DITMAR CENTRAL. Get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.
Ditmar awards ballot is out
And the Sir Julius Vogel too
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Years Bests for Database, PhD Research, Helen Merrick
Alex: Of Mice and Men (National Theatre Live) – because I want an SF version; The Greatship, Robert Reed; Veronica Mars (season 1); Osiris, EJ Swift
Tansy: Daughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins LOOK A REAL BOOK, Reign (Season 1), Agent Carter again. Operation: S.I.N.
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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…