Publication Date: September 1, 2015
Length: 432 pages
An Anonymous-style rabble rouser, an Arab spring hactivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll are each offered a choice: go to prison or help protect the United States, putting their brains and skills to work for the government for one year.
But being a white-hat doesn’t always mean you work for the good guys. The would-be cyberspies discover that behind the scenes lurks a sinister NSA program, an artificial intelligence code-named Typhon, that has origins and an evolution both dangerous and disturbing. And if it’s not brought down, will soon be uncontrollable.
Can the hackers escape their federal watchers and confront Typhon and its mysterious creator? And what does the government really want them to do? If they decide to turn the tables, will their own secrets be exposed—and their lives erased like lines of bad code? (Source: Amazon Product Description)
Short Version: It’s a good sign when you enjoy a book so much when it’s completely “against your type”.
Long Version: I have a computer. I’m using it right now, in fact. I can do some pretty professional editing of photos, use several word-processing programs, surf the net, install mods and change code in my Sims 3 game… but that’s about it. I’m not interested in tech, as such.
So it was a genuine surprise to me that I enjoyed this book as much as I did.
The plot is nicely summed up by the summary, and I can’t elaborate much on it. Simply put, it’s the old they’ll kill you because you know too much scenario. People use computers like magic wands are used in Harry Potter. There’s a sequence in the middle where it feels like characters are being shot every couple of lines, popped off like target cut-out turkeys on a shooting range. There are car chases and stand-offs and bombings and peril, galore.
This is not a kissing book, is what I’m saying.
If that sounds hellishly complicated for a pleasure read, take it from me: you’ll find yourself trusting Wendig. I have no idea if he researched for ten years for this thing, or if he was just making up what hackers can and can’t do, and how. It doesn’t matter. Right or wrong, I believed him. You will, too.
The main drawcard, I felt, was Wendig’s short, snappy prose, and how expertly he uses it to move his story along. If you’re baffled and sometimes bored with long descriptive paragraphs or pages of explanatory backstory, never fear. Wendig is the writer for you. You’ll find yourself whipped along by the pace of his writing, without feeling like he’s skipping anything important:
Ray’s ears ring. He can smell the eggy stink of expended powder. The door pops open. The top of it clips Ray across the forehead. He staggers. Two hard fists piston into his side. A leg hooks around the back of his knee, pulls like a hook – the world flips around, and his tailbone hits asphalt.
As someone who struggles with pacing in action sequences, I am deeply and profoundly jealous.
This book clocks in at over 400 real, dead-tree pages, but it’s a speedy read without being a flimsy one. You’re not tempted to skim.
Another interesting – and admirable – thing about Wendig’s writing is that on the one hand, it deals with what could fairly be called a number of stereotypes: Evil Government Conspiracy (with people occasionally being heinous for the sake of it). Joe Whiteboy America: Nice Guy Edition. The ‘old-school cipherpunk’ mentioned in the book’s summary is your typical old hippy whose few topics of conversation keep returning us to reminding us that he’s old, and a Vietnam vet (referred to as ‘Nam, of course) who doesn’t trust teh evol gubbermint. He’s likened to the Unabomber at least once.
Then there’s the use of the old Internet Trolls Are Fat, Lonely Shut-Ins Who Secretly Crave Love stereotype.
I’ll admit it made for some nerve-racking reading for a bit there. What are we to do with, say, one DeAndre Deleon Mitchell, who thinks he’s a “little Tupac in the making”, lives in a ghetto, says “yo” and “homies” a lot, is terrified of the wrath of his “moms”, and addresses his neighbour as “Miss Livinia”?
Wendig forges past the barriers to good storytelling/characterisation that he sets up for himself, but it’s a close call in places. Hollis Copper, Special Agent, is another African-American character; when DeAndre tries to call him a “traitor to the skin”, he informs him his father was a dentist and he went to Princeton, and to not try that “solidarity shit”.
So there’s that.
Wendig isn’t afraid to make his “heroes” completely unlikable, either, and it’s a refreshing change from books filled with angelic heroes and demonic villains. His best example here is the character of Reagan Stolper.
Reagan is a spectacular, 24/7 bitch. And I don’t mean in a “you go, girl!” kind of way where you giggle when she fires off witty remarks to people, either. I mean, you will want to reach through the pages and slap her. If she was a real person, you probably would. But Reagan is a triumph because she comes across as a real person – some people just ARE jerks. We may hate her, but hate is a strong emotion and Wendig has made us feel it for someone who doesn’t exist.
I wasn’t particularly wild about was Regan’s backstory. I get it – there are reasons she’s an asshole and she has a tragic past, blah blah. I’m probably in the minority of this, but I’m tired of the insistence that bullies are just fragile little souls who want to be accepted and act out when they aren’t.
But overall she’s the shining beacon of characterisation in Zer0es. Much better, I thought, than the burgeoning relationship between two incredibly bland characters, Chance and Aleena.
I try not to post spoilers, and won’t here – suffice it to say that the ending is satisfying, with everything wrapped up neatly. I felt as the story rushed toward its climax that my suspension of disbelief was wobbling a little, but I’m almost certain that’s my being a little shaky with my understanding of the genre.
Give this one a go.