When I think about what I want from a literary award shortlist, a selection of excellent books is of course a must; but I’d also like to see books that, once read, feel essential – selections that mean you’ll have missed out if you don’t read them. In Hull Zero Three, the Clarke judges have chosen something different: a decent-enough novel that nobody needs to read.

A man, who comes to be known as ‘Teacher’, wakes (with no memory) from his induced hibernation to discover that his dream of having travelled across the stars to a new planet has not become reality. On the contrary, Teacher finds himself aboard a cold, dark, and largely deserted spacecraft (called simply ‘Ship’)  – deserted, that is, but for the monstrous creatures which threaten to do away with him; and the handful of survivors who might help him figure out what has happened.

As a mystery-thriller-in-space, Hull Zero Three works well enough. True, its prose rarely rises above the level of straightforward functionality; but the aesthetic that creates is entirely appropriate for the stark geometry of Ship and claustrophobic focus of the novel (tellingly, I think, those scenes where the prose does move into a more poetic register tend not to be set in the fictional present). The pacing is fine, and Greg Bear is a sufficiently canny science fiction writer that his plot twists and resolution are interesting.

But the mystery is all in Hull Zero Three, and the novel can’t move beyond the limitations that creates. There’s not much room for characterisation, nor to really explore the moral issues raised by the situation. And, even though Bear’s narrative moves along at a fair old clip, three hundred pages still feels rather long for what it is.

Hull Zero Three is a novel that can sit happily on bookstore shelves and be pointed to as evidence that solid reads are still being produced in the science fiction genre. But, if you never took it down from the shelf to read it, you would be none the worse off. It’s a book that passes the time, but I can’t get at all excited about it; that’s not the kind of work I want to see on the Clarke shortlist.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.