So an Arab Spring hacktivist, an online troll, a wannabe Anonymous-style hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and a credit card scammer walk into a bar… Well, okay, the bar part isn’t necessarily part of Chuck Wendig’s new novel Zer0es, but wouldn’t that make for a great joke-writing contest?
Instead, Zer0es begins with the five aforementioned digital malcontents getting caught in various acts of online criminality, then being strong-armed by the U.S. government into working for them. The hackers can either do ten years hard time in a federal prison or spend one year working for Uncle Sam in what appears to be a secretive cyber-espionage project. Faced with a textbook example of “an offer they can’t refuse,” they soon find themselves at a remote location known only as “the Lodge.”
There, the five hackers are assigned a variety of missions, mainly penetrating the websites of seemingly unconnected companies and individuals. Slowly, however, it becomes clear that there is an actual connection: a sinister NSA program known only as “Typhon”…
Zer0es by Chuck Wendig poses an interesting conundrum for this reviewer. On the one hand, it’s entertaining, fast-paced, action-packed, frequently funny and always hard to put down. On the other, it’s got some serious issues. Wendig is still on my read/buy-on-sight list, and there’s a lot to like about Zer0es, but I can’t give this one a thumbs-up without unpacking some of what I disliked about it.
But first, some positives! Chuck Wendig has an immediately recognizable prose style that I simply love. Short, punchy sentences and chapters. Realistic, witty dialogues. A Scott Lynch-like inclination for funny profanity. There’s the occasional misstep (honestly, I could do without sentences like “she starts cutting through the dangling digital vines with the heft of her data-machete”) but for the most part, Wendig is simply a master at the kind of transparent prose that just keeps those pages turning. As result, you have fun reading his books, even when they’re at their darkest. Just witness how smoothly Wendig sets up the novel, introducing five characters in five short chapters without missing a beat. That takes some skill.
Also, kudos for diversity here! Just looking at the six main characters (the five hackers plus Hollis Copper, the agent who forces them into the Lodge project) there’s a great balance of race, gender, age, and so on. Unfortunately, many of the hackers, especially DeAndre and Aleena, feel a bit stereotypical and one-dimensional. To be fair, several of these characters gradually gain facets and secrets that pull them at least partly out of one-dimensional territory, but some of these later revelations frankly didn’t feel convincing, almost as if they were shoehorned into the story to add some depth.
In the end, none of the characters have the same kind of impact as Miriam Black from Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds (my review) and sequels. That’s partly because they lack Miriam’s manic energy and partly because the viewpoint changes constantly between the five hackers, Hollis Copper, and a few other characters. Combined with the short chapter length, this waters down the impact of the separate characters considerably. (Then again, there are few characters in the genre who pack the same kind of punch as Miriam Black—online troll Reagan Stolper is a watered down version, at best—so maybe I’m just spoiled by Wendig’s earlier works.)
My main problem with Zer0es, however, is that the overall plot feels a bit—and I truly hesitate to use this term—hokey. The updated-for-the-21st-century cyberpunk storyline is all well and good, but the weird Cronenberg-like body horror that creeps in towards the end just didn’t work for me at all, and the ending just plain annoyed me. There’s some spoilery details about this in the next two paragraphs, so they’re whited out for your protection. If you want to avoid spoilers, skip to the last paragraph now!
So, the body horror stuff? There’s a dude who has a weird metal tentacle thing coming out of his head. There’s brain surgery with buzzy saws that install a cyber-link into people’s heads, connecting them to the Typhon artificial intelligence/hive mind thing. And the people who make up that AI? They hang from the ceiling, jacked full of wires and tubes. It’s all somewhere between weird, goofy and horrible, in a way that just doesn’t work for me at all.
To top it off, the novel is book-ended by two chapters that take place in China after the main story ends. The final one is a cliffhanger that practically screams “sequel” and took away most of my enjoyment of the sort-of ending of the main story. All of this makes Zer0es a novel I enjoyed less and less as it wound its way towards the end.
So, not my favorite novel by Chuck Wendig. Since I just mentioned one director’s name a few paragraphs back, here’s another one that more or less sums up my dissatisfaction with Zer0es. Finishing up the novel, I came to the inescapable and painful realization that any future movie adaptation would almost have to be directed by M. Night Shyamalan—and unfortunately the early 2000s Shyamalan of Signs and The Village. If you’re new to Chuck Wendig, I’d suggest picking up the shiny new Saga Press edition of Blackbirds instead.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on August 13th, 2015.