Marrow, Robert Reed

Tor, 2000, 502 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56657-2

Readers of these reviews won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t necessarily review everything that I read. Aside from my technical/reference reading, there are a considerable number of books that are either too inconsequential or too boring to review at length. Over any given period, I will review one book in three or four that I read.

While it’s relatively easy to praise or condemn a book, it’s much harder to find ~650 words about a book that didn’t even register in the first place. Unfortunately, I also try to review every recent SF book that I buy, if only to justify my SF purchases. With Robert Reed’s Marrow, I find myself with a conflict. I want to review it because it’s recent SF. Yet I don’t want to review it because it’s such a blah book.

It’s long. It takes place over thousands of years. It features only a dozen characters, and not many of those are of any interest. For ten Canadian dollars, you can get a much better book.

And yet… here goes:

Let’s start with the premise, arguably the best thing about Marrow: It all takes place in a big alien ship. A really big alien ship. I don’t exactly recall the dimensions, nor can I be bothered to dig them up, but it’s such a big alien ship that humans eventually discover a Mars-sized planet deep inside after a few hundred thousand years of occupation. Mars-sized. And they’d sort of never found it before. Big alien ship.

Due to life-extension technology, the lifespan of our characters is virtually infinite barring any unfortunate accidents. This has two important consequences on the plot of the novel. First, these characters think nothing of waiting a few hundred years before doing something. Second, we can never be totally sure they’re dead until their individual atoms are fissioned. There are more fakeouts in Marrow than there are in an entire season of your favorite soap-opera.

The plot involves a few hundred senior ship officers being stranded on the Mars-like planet as no-one ever goes to look for them. Thousands of years (and hundreds of pages) pass. They eventually manage to re-create a complete industrial civilization and go back to the ship, only to discover a dastardly plot to take over the ship. There’s a war in which millions of sentient beings die. There is an ending of sort. The end.

Now milk out all the drama out of the above, add in some spurious pseudo-melodrama and let fester for five hundred pages. Your result will look a lot like Marrow; good potential, but it’s just not a lot of fun. I was lucky enough to be stuck witnessing a day-long management conference with the book as my only friend. It was probably the most efficient way to make me read a book I didn’t care too much about.

And that, in a nutshell, is all you need to know about Marrow: I didn’t care too much about it. Certainly didn’t love it, but neither did it actively start annoying me. It just… was.

Unfortunately, that means that your hard-won entertainment dollars (and your even more precious entertainment-time) can be spent more efficiently elsewhere. Bruce Sterling. Learning Spanish. A yo-yo. Heck, even a Hollywood movie. Oh, Reed completists will presumably love it, if they exists. Some SF critics may be tempted to read it if only to find out how some exciting ideas can be ruined by tepid writing. Many of us, though, may very well just not care. Too bad.

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