Having heard of author Chuck Wendig for quite some time, but never having read any of his works, I felt that the release of his newest cyber thriller, Zer0es, would be the perfect opportunity to get my feet wet in his oeuvre (!), especially since this novel has, at its core, hackers bucking the system. Although I am fairly clueless when it comes to technology, I still admire hackers and their anti-hero/against the system ethos – they feel like modern day pirates, sailing the open sea of the internet, footloose and fancy free (we’ll sidestep the looting and pillaging for now).
The hackers in Mr. Wendig’s Zer0es are anything but noble pirates. While some of them may have noble goals (Aleena Kattan is intimately involved with Arab Spring, for example, even though she lives in New York), most of them are disillusioned, on the make, or just outright mean. What brings them all together is not a common purpose or a shared political goal; it’s federal agent Hollis Copper.
Agent Copper has been tasked with retrieving five assets, by intimidation or coercive force if necessary, and escorting them to a government compound (euphemistically named “the Hunting Lodge”) where they will work on tasks assigned them by the NSA for one year. In exchange, they will not be thrown in jail on charges ranging from identity theft to terrorism. Why these five lackluster folks, who have nothing in common and no shared mindset, is a mystery; all Copper knows is that they have been “chosen” by some Artificial Intelligence program known as Typhon and that he has been strong-armed into bringing them in.
Along with Aleena there is DeAndre, a scam artist who makes a living skimming personal information from gas pumps; Wade, a 63 year old Viet Nam vet, now an anti-government doomsday prepper; Reagan, an obnoxious, mean spirited shrew whose biggest thrill is trolling folks who don’t even see her coming; and Chance, Southern trailer trash whose one claim to hacking fame was more accident than talent.
These five are the newest (and possibly strangest) “pod” at the Lodge, but they certainly aren’t the only ones; there are quite a few other hackers there, too; other pods, other groups, even a bona fide superstar in Shane Graves (who boasts that he actually volunteered to there). Each of them are prisoners of the system, cut off from any outside access, following a structure and rules meant to keep them in the dark, keep them contained, keep them productive. They are tested in their ability to infiltrate companies and subvert corporate security. If they are successful, their lives are somewhat comfortable and uncomplicated. If they aren’t successful, if they “wash out”, then they head directly to prison with no trial, no judgment, and no appeal.
But hackers are, by their very nature, dissatisfied by being told what they can and cannot do, and if they sniff a mystery, they are going to be hell bent at uncovering the source of the smell. And they are very, very imaginative, regardless of dysfunction. So therefore, this misfit hacker pod does something they aren’t supposed to do – they look beyond their assigned chores to find some kind of link, some kind of hidden hinge to the process, then push it until it cracks. And when they do, all hell breaks loose.
Which isn’t to say that the hackers – or the authorities – are the weirdest things in Zer0es. No, there are far more nefarious things afoot, instigated by human ingenuity, perhaps, but quickly grown far beyond what any single human’s perception or intelligence is able to harness. All they/it needs now is to be set free.
I can certainly see why Chuck Wendig has a devoted following. His story line in Zer0es is intriguing, his writing crisp and direct; at times, quite gruesome. He lets his characters set the stage and then play to it; while not sparse in his descriptions, he does not waste undue time setting up the environment or situation. Instead, he put his characters into environments that we recognize, places them into situations that we may expect, and then twists and pushes them just enough to take us into the realm of the bizarre, the strange, the compelling and the perplexing. Oh yeah, and the gruesome.
And yes, his characters are indeed compelling. They seem like archetypes: the fiery young hacktivist of Syrian descent to whom freedom is the siren’s call, regardless of the cost; the hip black hustler whose weakness is his “moms” back in the ‘hood; the caustic has-been who despite being written off knows his way around both old school programming and a wide array of weaponry; the hateful, hurtful fat bitch queen who claims to care about nothing and who has built her defenses so high she has lost sight of what it is to feel for anyone outside of spite; the Southern good ol’ boy who knows how to use his fists but also what it feels like to get beaten up, who fears deep down that he really is just a loser; the good cop with a bad past who may not know technology, but knows the criminal mind.
But despite the expected panoply of type, they still feel utterly genuine. While none of them are lovable, their inner dialogs reveal vulnerability along with anger and bitterness. They rail against the world, even as they attempt to save it.
People don’t care about us. They care about their pumpkin lattes. They care about fast Netflix speeds. They care about clever fucking Facebook memes. They don’t care about Snowden. Or NSA spying. WikiLeaks was interesting until it wasn’t. We blow up kids in Pakistan. We bomb terrorists this year we armed last year. Nobody says ‘boo’ as long as they can get the new iPhone, right?
They aren’t trying to be heroes, none of them. They know they are considered the dregs of society, the zeroes, the anonymous nothings that are feared and despised. But despite themselves, they do care, about something or someone that they can’t ignore and won’t give up, and that’s what keeps them scrambling even when the odds are stacked against them. They also know enough about the glimpsed power set loose in the world – an integrated power that they helped to free – to be terrified. But it’s the very knowledge that they can’t win that may be their greatest strength. After all, they’ve heard it before, and they’re still standing. For now.
Zer0es is fast paced, it’s witty, it’s crisp. If you are distrustful of technology now, you are going to be scared to death reading this book (in the best of ways). I have no idea if the workings of the hackers and techniques described are legitimate or not, but they sound cohesive and credible. But then, it doesn’t matter. The story and the characters trump the minutiae of the technology. Yes, sometimes the trail of bodies tends to get disingenuous, but that’s a quibble. Come for the drama, stay for the deliciousness of the dialog and the tense of those conversations. Expect the machine but get lost in the humanity.
Indeed, I think I’ll be reading more Chuck Wendig in the foreseeable future. Much more.