Sunday, 4 March 2012

Marrow – Robert Reed (2000)

Marrow has come as a complete surprise to me. Although I do love science fiction and have been reading it since before I reached the age of 10 (inspired by all those great science fiction movies of the late 70’s, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind) my knowledge of what’s out there has diminished over the years. When I saw Marrow at my library I grabbed it because it has one of those great old school covers of a vast space ship – it always appeals. I’d never heard of Robert Reed and assumed that he was a new author. In fact Robert Reed has been around since the eighties and his first novel – The Hormone Jungle emerged in 1988.

Marrow’s premise is simple - future humans detect a massive ship heading towards the galaxy and they manage to board and commandeer the deserted ship before other galactic species manage to beat them to it. The ship is impressively huge – bigger than Jupiter, and is totally mysterious in terms of its origin, purpose and destination. The ship (it’s always just referred to as ‘the ship’) is so multifaceted, so huge and so much a part of this novel that it is entirely appropriate that the opening section is told from the perspective of the ship.

Marrow is divided into sections. The second section, which is appropriately called Marrow, begins with the introduction of Washen - just one of the great characters that populate this entertaining tale. Washen, like all of the humans that live during this time, is virtually immortal thanks to gene therapy that has transformed the human body into a healing powerhouse. The way that immortality is dealt with in Marrow is impressive, exploring both the practical and existential issues that come with it. Reed’s imaginative powers are excellent and he combines it with a hard sci-fi sense of what might just be possible. At times I found myself thinking of Iain M. Banks and his Culture novels, which display a similar imaginative prowess.

The immortal humans may have technology on their side but Reed makes them all too human, with a broad range of subtle and interesting characterizations that help make characters such as Washen (rebellious and complex), Miocine (intense and bitter) and Pamir (an unconventional and ugly individualist) easy to relate to. Such engaging characters are important because the scope of the novel is so huge. The Marrow section, for example, details events over nearly five thousand years, but despite this you are with the characters all the way. This section is easily the most impressive of the book, with tension building continually around the mystery of what lies at the heart of the ship. The mystery behind the ship and its core is brilliantly compelling and is woven into the narrative so well that you never want to put the book down.

Along the way there are plenty of weird aliens and awesome technology on display. The humans take the ship on a tour of the galaxy, picking up paying alien passengers, which sometimes leads to interesting problems. The ship is filled with habitats, including one suspended above a hydrogen sea contained within a tank the size of a moon. Such entertaining distractions are not relied upon by Reed however, as the plot is well thought out and brilliantly executed.

By the time you get to the last third of the novel the tension and mystery is almost unbearable. When the tension is finally released during the novel’s intense endgame it comes almost as a disappointment. Fortunately there is a sequel – The Well of Stars (2004), which no doubt explains some of the unsolved mysteries left dangling at the conclusion of the novel.

Marrow is an impressive achievement, overflowing with great characters and an intricate plot. Reed’s imagination is equal to the task of making the space opera a fresh proposition. It has been quite a while since I’ve enjoyed a science fiction novel as much as Marrow and I thoroughly recommended the book to those whose disposition lends itself to science fiction.

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