“To jump ahead in time like this, as any drunk would know, can really fuck with the head.”
Peter Caswell is a man with a very particular set of skills. Skills that he has acquired over a very long—what’s that? That line’s taken? Ok, let’s try this again. Peter Caswell is an assassin, and he is very good at his job. What is his secret? A chemical secreting neurological implant. At a thought, or using his watch, he can introduce chemicals into his system that will give him increased reaction time, etc. But the real trick is the ability of his handlers to erase his memories. Every mission—every kill—is to him his first, and he walks away at the end with a clean conscience and no memory of his actions.
The term is “Integrity-Assured Protocol,” as his handler puts it. He works for Archon Corporation (as is customary, you’re just expected to take it as a matter of course that corporations can have people killed with impunity). He starts the book in his flat, fresh off a mission, doing his best to control his environment to mitigate the ill effects of a sudden gaping hole in his memory. His one vice is turning beer bottles around in his fridge so he knows how many people he’s killed (3 on this mission, 209 total). He tries to jet off for a quick adventure, assuming the persona of a Chinese businessman he met at the airport, but he’s called in for another job.
A missing weapons-research ship has been found near the sun and he’s to accompany the ship that won the salvage job (this is near- to intermediate-science fiction). That ship found something very, very dangerous, and it may have cost the life of everyone on the ship but Alice Vale. As it turns out—and apologies, but there is so much going on that I really have to get into some spoilers—what it found was a wormhole that leads to a solar system with a very curious planet. “A planet almost identical to Earth, populated by intelligent life. Human life, Peter. Whoever they are, however they got here or how this place came to be, they appear to be at a technological level similar to where we were in the 1950s. The Venturi even intercepted radio transmissions that sound an awful lot like English, believe it or not.” (The English thing gets addressed.)
And so Caswell is left to “track [Alice Vale] down the old-fashioned way: detective work, spycraft. ‘With 1950s technology.’” He finds an ally in Melni, a Southern spy posing as a journalist in the North.
What follows is one hell of a spy thriller. Zero World is also one hell of a science fiction story. I had to say a lot, too much really, to do the plot justice, but there is much, much more going on there. It’s a book that straddles a bunch of genres, and it is well aware of it. It skillfully plays on and with those tropes, and even finds time for one delicious dig at steampunk. The momentum of the plot starts hurtling forward from practically page one and never lets up. Caswell can be a bit of a cypher, but Melni more than makes up for him. All in all, it may be the best book I’ve read this year.
Disclosure: I received an advance copy of Zero World via NetGalley.
Scheduling note: If all goes well, reviews of The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard and Zer0es by Chuck Wendig will go up tomorrow and Thursday, respectively. I won’t be at WorldCon (wedding on the other side of the country), but I will post a post-mortem of the Hugo Awards next week if I have anything interesting to say (I’m hoping I don’t!).