Review: Zer0es by Chuck Wendig
Also by this author: The Cormorant
Published by Harper Voyager on August 18th 2015
Genres: Science Fiction
Five hackers—an Anonymous-style rabble-rouser, an Arab Spring hacktivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll—are detained by the U.S. government, forced to work as white-hat hackers for Uncle Sam in order to avoid federal prison. At a secret complex known only as "the Lodge," where they will spend the next year working as an elite cyber-espionage team, these misfits dub themselves "the Zeroes."
But once the Zeroes begin to work, they uncover secrets that would make even the most dedicated conspiracy theorist's head spin. And soon they're not just trying to serve their time, they're also trying to perform the ultimate hack: burrowing deep into the U.S. government from the inside, and hoping they'll get out alive. Packed with electric wit and breakneck plot twists, Zer0es is an unforgettable thrill ride through the seedy underbelly of "progress."
Reviews can be hard to write sometimes. This is definitely one of those times (it is also likely unpopular opinion time). I have a strong regard for Wendig and his other books, so I was really looking forward to this one. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it: I was disappointed. I wanted to love or at least really like this book and felt like I hit obstacle after obstacle. Some of my complaints are more minor, but they cumulate to an overall less than positive reaction to the book. I hate writing negative reviews and it turns out I like it even less for an author I have enjoyed in the past. So, if you have not read Wendig before, please don’t let this negative review discourage you from his other books. And I will admit, I may be a minority opinion on this, so I encourage you to read other reviews and see what other readers have to say about it.
Getting many perspectives in a book can provide benefit for the reader as we get a wider view of what is going on. But I also think it is something that can go wrong quickly if not done well. I want my characters to be individuals, to have personalities and substance. What I feel happened in this book is Wendig tried to cover too many characters, bouncing between them and leaving the reader without that connection we need to relate to them. He featured a wonderfully diverse cast, but without real depth to any of them it started to almost feel like a checklist of stereotypes. And in all fairness, I don’t want to say I think Wendig is trying to perpetuate stereotypes, much of the humor in the book I think was actually trying to dispel stereotypes. But, I still felt like these characters were defined by the traits that could make them stereotypes because there just was not enough else to them.
I love Wendig’s sense of humor, I really really do. That acerbic, sarcastic, sometimes just slightly wrong type of funny. I love it. But, once again, I felt like the number of characters here was a negative and I have to confess that one of the things I didn’t like was how many characters had his sense of humor. Like I said, I love Wendig’s sense of humor, but when all the characters in the book have it to one degree or another (and there are a good number of characters), it seems to lose something, it starts to feel out of character for at least some of them.
The comments would be wrapped in the dialect for the particular character, the humor was so similar. And for some of the characters, it just felt unnatural and stilted. I felt like instead of hearing the characters’ voice I just heard the author’s voice and the humor at that point lost its impact. And don’t misread me, I do want to hear an author’s voice when I read their books! Everyone does, that’s why we go out of our way to read books by our favorite authors. It is just that I also want the characters to have their own voice, to have agency. I do have a hard time with humor in books, but typically Wendig has been on the money with what I find funny. This really surprised me to feel like the humor fell flat. I also feel like this problem I had in not finding a real voice to the characters acerbated my problem mentioned before about defining the characters by the traits that define their stereotype rather than the traits that make them real personalities.
I just didn’t feel like he was able to give these characters actual substance with the number of characters he tried to carry.
So, past the characters, lets talk a bit about plot. I actually found the plot to be interesting. A group of elite, but misfit hackers are taken to be a part of some super secret government program. They are really given little choice, being forced to immediately drop their current life and serve in this program with no contact with what becomes the outside world. They are taken to a type of compound that serves like a prison, keeping them inside, and inline. This group is not there alone, they arrive to find other groups (or pods) of hackers as well. As this new group that we follow all feel like outsiders, they label themselves Zer0es.
A mysterious project? Lots of hacker types? Yeah, I’m in. Let’s do this. And in the beginning, I was quite intrigued. I do think the concept of this book is good, and I think there’s a good story in there. But unfortunately it quit working for me about half way through the book. I have admitted before, I often don’t do well with “weird”. Some books wave their weirdness flag from the beginning and I know what I’m getting into and adjust my expectations, or at least prepare myself. Others gradually ease you into it letting some of us that have a lower tolerance gradually get there bit by bit, adjusting to it as the story progresses as we don’t have to take it all in at once. This one? It comes on full force in the second half and just kind of slaps you in the face. I just wasn’t prepared. Perhaps looking back I should have been, but some of the scenes and turns in this book just left me thinking “WTF? Really?” And not in a good way. Once again, I think my lack of connection to the characters made this harder for me.
I also remained strangely unaffected by deaths in this story, and there’s quite the body count. This is definitely a direct result to my lack of connection with either the story or the characters. Someone died? Hmmm… ok. What’s next?
So, when it came time to rate this one, I had a hard time. I just couldn’t see giving a book by Chuck Wendig less than 3 stars. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to be less than 4. But when it came down to it, and I asked myself “If I had never read this author before, what would I rate it”, and then my answer came easier. Not 3 stars. Between my lack of connection to any of the many characters, and then my reaction to much of the second half, I had to go lower. I know there will be other people who will enjoy this more. Probably many readers will welcome all the characters having Wendig’s sense of humor, and many readers have a much higher tolerance for “weird” than I do and I use that term because I just don’t know what else to label it. Events that border on ridiculous and really really test your suspension of disbelief. I mean, we read Fantasy and Science Fiction, we typically are quite use to not caring about things being believable in a real world sense. But for me, there has to be some effort to establish a belief of it in the fictional world and story we are reading. And I think there was, it just wasn’t enough for me.
I do expect I’ll likely be a minority opinion on this, and I encourage people to consider other reviews before writing this one of completely, but I had to share my honest reaction and this is what it came to. For me, I will likely stick to Wendig’s books that have a smaller cast, where I get a stronger connection to just one or two characters (and they can spew all the Wendig humor they want, as just a couple of characters like this works well for me).