If you’re thinking to yourself, “Zer0es? Wait, Laura doesn’t normally review sci-fi books on Hump Day Review, wtf?!” you’d be correct.
For the TL;DR crowd I’ll skip straight to the end: Go read this fucking book now!
See, as soon as I found out Chuck Wendig had written a book about hackers, I was like YES, I’M ALL IN!
I used to love reading books about hackers. When I was in high school, I eagerly gobbled up Neal Stephenson’s early books like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. My favorite was actually Zodiac, more of an eco-thriller than a cyberpunk book, but I loved the high-speed thrills and the psychological challenges the heroes of his books had to overcome. I also enjoyed William Gibson’s take on cyberpunk, which was slightly more cerebral, but definitely still high octane. Neuromancer, Idoru, Pattern Recognition, reading these made me feel like in the future, smart people wouldn’t be considered nerds, but rebels, outlaws and even celebrities.
I never actually read any Philip K. Dick books, but the resonance particularly of Blade Runner was inescapable for me. When The Matrix came out, though I originally protested even attending a free screening to the Keanu Reeves vehicle, I too became hooked by the tale of hackers, crackers, phone phreaks and assorted cyberpunks starring as the good guys in a world gone bad.
Hell, I still love Hackers — not for its topless Angelina Jolie, but for its delightfully ancient technology. Dial-up modems galore! Floppy disks! Pay phones!
So when I was reading Zer0es, it all felt deliciously reminiscent of all of my favorite hacker books and films, while also putting a totally new spin on a classic plot of good vs. evil.
To that end…
***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!***
While you could certainly argue that Zer0es is set in a world like that of The Matrix (which draws much from ye olde Plato’s Cave), or maybe The Terminator (death by intelligent machines!), it’s also borrowing lots of ideas from our ever-evolving tech culture. Indeed, I would put forth the opinion that the world Wendig has created is much more like our own world, the real and online world of 2015, than many of my favorite futuristic hacker books previously mentioned, and that’s part of what makes this book both so exciting and frightening.
Rather than the cool factor and joy of exploring unknown cyber worlds, as many of the stories of the 1990s and early 2000s were, Wendig’s tale is much more cautionary. What could happen if hackers really did band together to hack the Gibson, as it were? Holy shit: the whole world could come crashing down! And as every bit of our lives is increasing moved online, those 1s and 0s are ever more important — and ever more hackable by those who wish to wreak havoc.
Now, as Wendig’s characters show us, there will always be “white hat” and “black hat” hackers — and there will always be those who are some shade of gray in between, straddling various ethical lines, depending on their whims and the situations at hand. Some have criticized his characters as being caricatures, but I have to say that I liked the way he divided them up, offering everything from the old-school BBS operator collecting information and parts, to the new-school hackers who can code on the fly, kick down any digital backdoor, and swipe the necessary information without leaving a trace. Finally, a use for all those conspiracy theorists and doomsday preppers, as well as the savvy script kiddies!
I also liked that at least two of the central characters were women, one with a Syrian background that instantly labeled her a terrorist and one the kind of troll that you’ll typically find fucking with people’s minds on Facebook. They couldn’t have been more different, and I certainly can’t complain about these ladies taking a backseat to the hacker dudes here, either when dealing with computers or when jumping straight into the real-world action.
But the character I may have identified with the most was actually the one guy that didn’t belong there at all: Chance Dalton. Chosen to be part of an elite squadron of hackers, Chance is way out of his element. The only thing he’s done is hack into some local douchebros’ Facebook and email accounts to out them as the rapists they are. But he’s also taken on the mask of “Faceless,” an Anonymous-like organization that has global roots and reach, in order to make his point. He’s the weakest link, once they’re all chained together, but he’s still got something that the others don’t, and ultimately this ragtag crew has got to learn how to work together, despite their differences.
In a world where hackers can make or break our society, this is actually really important. And in a world where an artificial intelligence can keep on growing stronger the more human minds it sucks into its system — literally reprogramming any that dare to resist — the scarier this book gets. Frankly, I was surprised there was anything remotely happy about the ending; for a while there it looked bleaker than the pit of hell. But I’ll leave you to read that for yourselves.
Ultimately, I think the things I most enjoyed about this book were:
- The combination of old and new-school hackers,
- The always malleable lines between “good” and “bad” hackers,
- The utter creepiness of the villain(s), and
- The many ways that both the human mind and body are seen stretched to their limits, and that old concept that the body cannot live without the mind (and vice-versa) taken to startling extremes.
Basically, if you’ve ever thought that maybe the Cypher character from The Matrix was right about ignorance being bliss, and wanting to have his brain reinserted into the Matrix, this book will most certainly convince you otherwise.
I’d also have to agree with reviewer EC Myers, who credits Wendig for not doing a lot of “techsposition,” which is exactly what wrecks a lot of cyberthriller books for me. Instead focusing on the action side of things, it’s also correct to say that Chuck has an ability to make even the rather sedentary act of computer hacking seem truly spine-tingling. When the hackers get hacked, your hackles will be raised.
In conclusion, if you dig hacker books, cyberpunk books, thrillers or spy stories, this one is going to be straight up your alley.
P.S. If you’re going to bitch about the book’s tech being out of date, like the doofus from the NY Daily News whose opening complaint was that this book was “more -fi than sci-,” man, have you ever missed the point. Comparisons to Crichton and Stephen King are also ridiculous at best. Did this guy even read the book?