In Chuck Wendig’s new techno-thriller novel, Zer0es, five hackers — some highly skilled, some not so skilled — are not-so-innocently going about their daily business when they are unpleasantly interrupted by a tall African-American man who introduces himself as Hollis Copper or (in one case) “Mr. Government.” This motley crew of five consists of Chance, an aspiring Anonymous-style hacker who’s more con man than computer whiz; DeAndre, a talented hacker who specialized in stealing credit card data; Aleena, an Arab Spring hacktivist; Reagan, an unhappy and vindictive Internet troll; and 63-year-old Wade, a grizzled conspiracy nut and cipherpunk who collects classified information and deeply distrusts the government.
Hollis whisks his five hackers away, less than voluntarily, to an unknown location, where he makes a pitch to each of them: work for the government for one year on a top secret project, or take their chances with all the criminal charges and blackmail the government can bring down on their heads. The hackers all agree, with varying degrees of reluctance, ranging from DeAndre’s “F— you” to Reagan’s surprising response:
I quit my job a few weeks ago. I hate my apartment. I hate my town. I have a cat somewhere, and I hate that cat. He’s weird. He reminds me of Gollum. Piss on my old life. I’m in.
The five are sent to a remote location called the Lodge, where they join other groups of hackers in working on off-the-books cyber-espionage projects. With so many hackers cooped together in one location, rules are bound to get broken. And the consequences of their actions are impossible to foresee, and far more dangerous and terrifying than any of them imagined.
Zer0es is a gripping suspense novel that kept me up far too late into the night, unable to put the novel away until I finished it. Unfortunately, a little too much of its plot is derivative, from the unwilling group of misfits being molded into a team, to the artificial intelligence that spreads through all Internet-linked systems — a staple SF plotline that harks back to John Varley’s 1984 Hugo and Nebula award winning novella “Press Enter■” and even earlier SF works. There is perhaps an over-reliance on profane humor and snarkiness in the story, although Wendig’s many fans will undoubtedly be pleased. And not all of the subplots were explained sufficiently to be satisfying; some of them were literary dead-ends that came back to needle me when I recovered from the initial rush and started to analyze the plot.
Despite these drawbacks, this is undeniably an exciting and compelling thriller. Chuck Wendig skillfully assembles a large cast of main characters and manages to make all of them varied and interesting, an impressive accomplishment where there are so many point of view changes. Characters aren’t always what they first appear to be, but their development remains believable and grounded in realism. Zer0es includes fascinating and detailed descriptions about different types and styles of hacking, the rules of the hacking world, and the personalities of different hackers, shedding light on a part of society that will be unfamiliar to many readers.
There are also some unexpected and creative twists and turns to the story, including a ghoulish, robot-like character called the Compiler who periodically haunts the pages of the novel, becoming more and more of a presence in the plot until his true role becomes appallingly clear, and the overarching mystery of Typhon. On the second page of Zer0es, an interrogator asks Chance a question:
“How did you stop Typhon?”
Now Chance laughs. A ragged, raspy sound. “Who says we stopped it?”
This question haunts the pages of this novel, disturbing until the end… and perhaps beyond.
What Zer0es lacks in depth and originality, it makes up for in excitement and humor, enough to earn a place on the shelf for readers who enjoy techno-thrillers with an element of horror.