I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by HarperCollins on August 18th 2015
Genres: Fiction, General, Political, Science Fiction, Technological, Thrillers
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."
Cross Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother with The Matrix, add a dash of I, Robot and you’ll have the plot of Zeroes. The scariest part of this book is how absolutely plausible the scenario is. Perhaps the technology isn’t quite ready yet, but with NSA spying, Citizens United, and all the other craziness going on in our government over the last couple of presidencies, it’s not really all that far-fetched to think about the kind of shadowy conspiracies that could be happening behind the scenes. Which is why I usually avoid this type of book. Our world is getting dystopian enough in real life, I don’t need it in my fiction too.
Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t recommend this book to folks who disagree with that need. Written in Wendig’s signature third person present, this book vibrates with intensity. Which is hard to do when half of it involves the main characters sitting around in front of computers. Far less technical than Doctorow’s Little Brother, you won’t need to know much about computers here.
I’ll be honest — this is no Miriam Black book. None of the characters here have Miriam’s dark anti-heroic charisma. These are just regular, flawed, unextraordinary people. The “Anonymous-style rabble rouser” is a loser hick whose best tricks are all social engineering and who’s exposing rapists in order to make up for high school inaction that resulted in a girl’s suicide. The “Arab spring hactivist” acts self-righteous because her hacking skills are being used as political leverage for the oppressed. (Not that she’s wrong, just that she gets annoying about it.) The old school cipherpunk is a tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist and doomsday “prepper”.
I’ll admit to having a soft spot for the “black hat hacker”, who was just trying to buy his mom a house when the SWAT team burst in and arrested him. Sure, he was purchasing it with the ill-gotten gains of a credit card skimming scam, but since he was the most Leverage-like of a crew which has been compared to the Leverage team, I might be a little prejudiced. I always liked Hardison the best. (Just a note: this book is, in my opinion, only by the barest of margins comparable to Leverage. They seem almost totally different in both character and operation to me.)
I liked the troll the least. I will always like the trolls the least. Wendig does a good job of humanizing her with her own checkered past, and she does have a redemption arc of her own. But she’s also the worst kind of mean girl — humiliating and tearing down other people to make herself feel better. She even uses the old troll victim-blaming logic: if they didn’t want their secrets being found, they shouldn’t be stupid enough to have them in the first place. The sick sense of superiority is palpable.
I always feel like if the characters are real enough for me to dislike, then the author has done their job. None of the characters in this novel are heroes. They are ordinary people, with skills that anyone could learn, whose bad choices lead them almost by accident to discover a conspiracy. They step up to fight the conspiracy not out of any real heroism, but more out of self-preservation. Most of them aren’t even particularly likable, but they don’t have to be. In the end, it doesn’t matter why they stepped up — only that they did. Ordinary people, people who were convinced they were screw ups or criminals or just lesser in every way, who took a breath, grabbed hold of their courage, and fought back.
With the Hugo awards being announced the night prior to my writing this, the lesson becomes more powerful. Little people, ordinary people — screw ups and rejects and weirdos, like we all think that we are — when we join together, we can make a difference. We can save the world.