Edition 22: Book Review: Zer0es by Chuck Wendig
Reviewed by Damien Smith
I’ve just finished reading an awesome movie. At least that’s what it felt like. Zer0es is the latest in the growing bibliography spawned by Chuck Wendig, and for every fan of cyberpunk, well worth the effort. Throughout the book I found myself harking back to various TV shows and movies rather than other novels, which lead me to the conclusion that this should absolutely join the ranks of cinematics.
From the get go, an eclectic mix of five hackers is involuntarily and forcibly gathered by a government agent and given an ultimatum: serve a year hacking in The Lodge, an isolated purpose-built hacker facility, or rot in a federal prison. The story pace doesn’t let up. The five in question are: Scream mask-toting, Anonymous wannabe Chance (if you had to pick a primary protagonist, it’s probably him, but all five get pretty even air time); genuine hacker with a penchant for skimming credit cards, DeAndre; hard-core online troll Reagan; Arab Spring hacktivist Aleena; and old-school cypherpunk Wade.
The first half of the novel consists of the group, along with other hackers, “pen testing” (attempting to penetrate online security) of a seemingly unrelated series of companies. Tenuous links between the companies start to emerge, all with a common theme: Typhon. Who is Typhon? What is Typhon? The question drives the hackers to break the rules of The Lodge to find out, and kept this reader up late.
Around halfway through the novel, the pieces start to click into place, with the theory that Typhon is an immensely powerful Artificial Intelligence-based security program built by the government. The purpose of The Lodge becomes apparent and we switch gears from hacking mystery to action suspense. The body count skyrockets and the group are forced to go off the grid to prepare to strike at Typhon itself.
The character development is skilfully done, with all the leads having a reasonable depth of history that is revealed as required, forcing the reader to rethink their opinions of each and every one of them. The pacing of the story is such that I was looking for excuses to dodge responsibilities to get back to reading. Be warned though, the language and innuendo was also frequently strong enough to make an online avatar blush.
Having said that, while this is definitely a page turner, there is nothing startlingly new here. Nearly every part of the book put me in mind of something else: TV series Scorpion, The Matrix (in a big way), Avengers: Age of Ultron, even the scarabs from The Mummy franchise. However, the combination of these things, coupled with an increasing appetite of governments to hoard our metadata, created a (mostly) believable and really unsettling possibility for our not-too-distant future. Wendig sums it up perfectly when one of the characters quips, “Sci fi isn’t sci fi anymore”. The Internet of Things and universal connectivity, while almost limitless in possibility, are made terrifying just because of the implications of that limitless potential.
There were a few aspect and sub-plots that puzzled me though. I’m not sure if I need a re-read or just a really good ponder, but things like the freeing of Typhon and the ultimate purpose of The Widow (no context given for spoilers’ sake) didn’t entirely fit for me. Still, there is a lot to like here. The Compiler especially scores highly on my creepy villain-o-meter.
Zer0es is a worth addition to the ‘To Read’ pile of any fan of cyberpunk, any conspiracy nut, or anyone who wants to be immersed in a great action/suspense/horror plot without all that tedious business of messing around with the TV. Be warned though: the language and violence might be a bit much for some, although any fan of Wendig’s work will not be surprised by any of it. You may even find yourself contemplating going off the grid once you’re done reading.
Zer0es, by Chuck Wendig
Publisher: Harper Voyager, 2015
Being a writer requires dedication, commitment, devotion, diligence, a skin like an armadillo and a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears. By this definition, Damien is most definitely not a writer, although he does occasionally put pen to paper. More accurately, Damien is a lover of the written word in nearly all its forms (you can keep vampire romances) and always feels a little down if he can see over his To Read pile.