A man pushed open the saloon style doors of Louie’s on Fox. The right top hinge squealed like nails on chalkboard, acting a better entry bell than a bell would. Paint flaked from the wooden slabs in so many places, regulars made it a game to guess what color Louie claimed the door was that day. As the saloon doors flap closed, the hinge making fainter sounds with each flap like that of an animal letting out their last gasps of life, the man walks with steady steps in the direction of the bar. Dirt, brought in by the miners at the coal seam just outside of town and blown in from lack of glass on the window holes and a proper door, rise in small tufts under the heavy steps of the man. A few of the patrons that sit at the five fight-weathered tables like fleas clinging to a dog’s back give the man a once over, and then look back at their liquid dreams in the dirty glasses in front of them.
Two brown fans, fan blades more gray than brown from the caked on dust, turn as lazily as a vulture on a thermal waiting for a meal to die. It does nothing for the blistering heat that envelops the place, but they’re not supposed to according to Louie. It’s about not allowing the air to go stagnant. The man doesn’t know about that, nor does he care, he didn’t pick Louie’s for its cosmopolitan ambience.
He makes his way to a bar stool with a sliver of cushion and fabric so thin the man does what every other patron to Louie’s does, he tries to pull off the fabric like it was a dirty towel Louie left on the stool. When the fabric doesn’t come free, the man shrugs a shoulder, and sits in front of the bar top that takes up almost the entire left side wall.
Gouges, pits, and scraps decorate the deep brown oak bar top with patches of lighter oak, where fights had removed large chunks, joining the display. The metal running along the edge of the front could have been brass, or copper, or any other type of metal. It was hard to tell from the blood and dirt stains on top of the divots and dents. Behind the bartop that would turn away anyone more refined than a raccoon, five shelves were screwed into the roughhewn cedar wall. Dusty bottles with hardly a drop spilled from their confines sat next to near empty bottles of alcohol, the glass hard to see through from the dirt that covered it.
An old bartender behind the bar shambles over to the man sitting and places a glass as dirty as the bottle in front of the man. The inside could be clean, but the man doesn’t hold his breath. If he was worried about his health he wouldn’t have been at Louie’s.
“Cheapest vodka ya got,” the man says. As the bartender ambles away, he sighs, leans on his elbows against the bar, and just stares.
Greg Bear is horrible.
Okay, let’s back up here, shine the dirty glass so things are a bit clearer. If you are an author, you know this one piece of advice because it is a constant. Everyone who gives advice on writing says it; be it a blog post, newspaper article, or just shooting the breeze. If you want to be an author you need to know this; and if you just like reading, not writing, it will make sense when you think about it.
Characters in a story are not supposed to be as flat as cardboard.
An example would be the mini-story above. We know one character is a man and he doesn’t care about his health. That’s it. Why he’s there, what drove him to Louie’s, what drives him to do what he does. They are all absent, but the bar is in great detail. So you have a fleshed out background, but a character as flat as paper.
An entire novel is not supposed to be set up that way, yet Greg Bear does just that with Hull Zero Three, and it works. Which is why Mr. Bear is such a cretin. A story is not supposed to be a great read if the characters have the depth of an atom. Yet, Bear takes that given, throws it on the fire, and then writes a story populated by cardboard characters that is a really good read.
There is a reason why the characters are so one-dimensional in Hull Zero Three. To provide the reason would give away what makes the book wonderful, but that doesn’t mean the story is supposed to succeed. Even though the characters have to be cardboard, Hull Zero Three should be boring, but I couldn’t put it down.
For two days I read the book every single chance I got. Two free minutes waiting for the kitchen sink to fill with hot water? I read. Walking from the car to inside, I read. I read at night by the light of my phone, and during the morning while waiting for bread to toast.
The main reason for why the story is so fascinating is that the story is interesting despite being populated by cardboard characters. I don’t have a clue how he pulled it off. No idea.
Hull Zero Three is a great read. It’s really good. I highly recommend it.