Marrow – Robert Reed (2000)
‘The Ship is home to a thousand alien races and a near-immortal crew who have no knowledge of its origins and or purpose. At its core lies a secret as ancient as The Universe.
It is about to be unleashed.’
Blurb from the 2001 Orbit Edition.
A ship constructed from the raw elements of a Jupiter-sized planet, five billion years old, enters our Galaxy some time in the far future. Humanity lays claim to it and so founds a mobile civilisation augmented by ‘passenger’ races who travel about the galaxy.
Mutated humans, the ‘Remoras’, like their namesake fish who live ion a symbiotic relationship with sharks, live on the exterior of the ship, effecting repairs to the hull and maintaining defences against asteroids and other dangers.
The Immortal Captain discovers a secret at the core of the ship, an iron planet the size of Mars which is racked with volcanic activity but sustains a diverse eco-system which has adapted to such Hellish conditions.
An exploratory group of sub-captains and scientists finds themselves stranded on the planet, which has been christened ‘Marrow’.
Robert Reed is an author new to me, although I’ll certainly be looking for more from him. Of course, I am presuming that Reed is a man, which may not be the case, as James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice Sheldon) could testify were she here to tell us, God Rest Her Soul.
It reads very much like a female writer. I’m reminded of Octavia Butler and Marge Piercy in terms of style and characterisation. Yes, it’s that good!
Reed paints vivid portraits of a cast of characters all of whom are virtually immortal, and he seems to have gone to the trouble of thinking seriously about how someone whose genes automatically kick in to repair all but the most fatal of injuries would behave and think.
Having endowed his humans with indefinite life-spans Reed is free to extend the timescale of his novel and so, perhaps as an ancient human would review her memories, occasionally leaps decades or centuries forward in time to catch up with the characters and resume the action.
The science is perfectly balanced against the human stories and never overwhelms one with techno hyperbole, although from what I can determine, the science is well-researched and clearly presented.
There is a poetry in this novel which renders it readable and adds a mythic quality which accentuates the backdrop of immense size, age, distance and timescale.
Interestingly, the three main characters are female, complex, ambitious and powerful. Their male counterparts, although in some cases just as powerful, tend to be psychotic, devious or simplistic, and not really as interesting.
There’s some neat plot twists and turns, some clever ‘wee thinky bits’ and teasingly brief glimpses of the ship’s alien and machine life-forms.
At heart though, it’s a book about being human and what the concept of immortality might actually mean in real terms.
If we incorporate into ourselves genes which will almost instantly heal even the most terrible of injuries, up to and including decapitation, how would that affect our sense of personal danger? What plans can we lay when we can expect a lifespans of upwards of a hundred thousand years?
This is what Science Fiction should be.