Stories are fascinating because they are co-constructed experiences between teller and audience. Unless you are eating your own tale, your story takes shape not just from your words but also from its form in the minds of your audience. Each audience member contributes their own flavours to the stories. Sometimes, their visions correspond eerily similar to yours. Other times those visions diverge. I’m always fascinated when I read a story and find myself enjoying it despite its plot diverging from what I expected. (And I’m not talking about twists or surprises here, but rather how my mental map of what I interpret the story as being differs from what the story actually is on paper.)
Zeroes is the latest example of this phenomenon. Chuck Wendig is an author whose writing I greatly respect even though his stories aren’t always to my tastes. I hadn’t heard about this, so I was surprised to see a more “conventional” story from him—my library hasn’t labelled this as science fiction, although after reading I’m pretty sure I’d die on the hill that maintains it is. Anyway, there is a lot of creepy, twisty stuff happening in this book. Some of it is predictable, and some of it is not. The story doesn’t always go where I was hoping, but the places it goes are really interesting. This isn’t a “slam dunk” but it is a thriller that could have some broad appeal.
First, we have an ensemble cast. This is a risky proposition. Too many characters can make the story hard to follow. Wendig follows a very traditional “round up” method of introducing the cast, but he does it very well. In addition to allowing us to see each of these hackers in their “natural habitat”, this method lets Wendig scatter clues as to the overall plot. He sets up Hollis Copper as a formidable opponent, then subverts that by revealing that Hollis is jaded, out of favour with the agency, and largely a middleman for the more sinister Golathan. After we have met our hacking crew and they get sent to the Lodge, the real story begins.
Second, this is a story that feels familiar but isn’t. This sense of déjà vu might be why I kept expecting things to happen that didn’t. There is some serious Deus Ex stuff happening here (Leslie reminds me of Madame Zhao and Typhon the Hyron Project). On a low level, Wendig is challenging a lot of our assumptions about embodiment and the ways in which we will be interacting with technology in the near future. Similarly, he highlights some of the most topical issues around state surveillance strategies and the use of data mining to create ever-more-advanced predictive algorithms.
Third, this is a damn good thriller. I say that as someone who, generally, doesn’t appreciate thrillers and tends not to give them very good reviews when I do try them. Zeroes feels eerily close to a novelization of a movie. I could almost see this translating to screen very directly: the chapters feel like scenes, and that short time-jump towards the end is a nice kind of “wrap-up” scene that shows the characters’ continuing story. The diversity in the ages, genders, and races of the main characters would make for a nice, rich casting call. I would go to see this in the theatres.
That being said, for all that Zeroes does well within those parameters of techno-thriller, it doesn’t feel all that transgressive. If the nature of Typhon is supposed to shock me, then see above—Deus Ex: Human Revolution got to this first. Wendig’s portrayal of hacking is quite good—it and Mr. Robot do hacking right, in that they realize that the hacking part is not the actual story, and that showing hacks should be done sparingly because they really aren’t as magical as Hollywood seems to think. He tries to sample from a breadth of hacker sub-types (hence the ensemble), and he respectfully references hacking’s history and the hackers of yore; I can’t fault him for his research. Nevertheless, his engagement with hacker culture is shallow at best. The very premise of the government coercing hackers to white hat for them might be entertaining, but it’s not all that novel, nor does it even scratch the surface of what hackers (of any hat colour) are doing these days.
Don’t get me wrong: Zeroes kept me going through a Sunday afternoon, and it was good times. I meant what I said above about it feeling cinematic. The plot and story chug along, and the characters are turn-key in that respect; everything just falls into place like intricately laid out dominoes. This is a pleasant enough sensation—the kind of reliable drug hit all of us readers like. But it doesn’t tickle the ganglia that respond to fresh, new ideas (it might if this is your first time stumbling on some of these ideas, I guess). Zeroes is one of the better thrillers I’ve read, and if you are in the mood for this, you’ll enjoy it. But it didn’t rock my world.
P.S. This is the second book named Zeroes from 2015 that I’ve read (I technically read the other one at the very end of last year). If you want to find out which one I liked better, you’ll need to check out that review for yourself.
Am I doing this clickbait stuff right, guys?