Zer0es takes place in a parallel universe where Bridges Barbecue is “Red Bridges” and Iran just wants clean energy (presumably they just want to kill all the Jews to prevent pollution).
Zer0es starts in rapid fire fashion. In five quick chapters we see five hackers nabbed by the government and then, in turn, offered a deal. One year hacking for the government or the 10-15 years hacking will get you under American computer crime laws. The hackers are Chance, a country boy from North Carolina and wannabe-“Faceless” hacker who we first see getting his ass kicked for exposing rapist high school football players; Aleena, an Arab Spring “hacktivist” responsible for things like an extended denial of service attacks on the evil government in Syria (totally cool with the evil government in Iran though); DeAndre, a budding young entrepreneur who makes most of his money with gas station credit card skimmers; Wade, a Vietnam vet and old-school conspiracy theorist who lives in a bomb-rigged cabin in Idaho, or maybe Wyoming (please don’t tell the good people of either state about my confusion); and Reagan, an online troll and offline awful person. Each is apprehended by Hollis, a mutton-chopped FBI agent with a dark secret.
The real fun begins at the “Lodge,” the remote camp/prison at which they are deposited, then given a series of seemingly unrelated hacking tasks. But they quickly make enemies among the other hackers and the guards (and each other), there are eerie, inexplicable occurrences, and the hackers—or Zeroes as they’ve renamed themselves—begin to draw connections among their targets. And then? Then things get really hairy. I don’t want to spoil anything, but after the hacking phase of the book the crazy science fiction gets introduced and it starts to remind me of Stephen King’s Firestarter in the best kind of way.
Wendig is well known for his writing blog and his qualifications are clear. There is the kind of serious technical proficiency you see from writers of thrillers and King but not as often from speculative fiction authors. The pacing, in particular, is tremendous. Wendig adroitly switches among a large number of characters and POVs from page one. The premise is great, and the plot well structured. I’m the last person to ask whether the hacking descriptions are accurate, but they sound right, and it’s at the very least a big step up from the usual punch a bunch of buttons stuff we get in movies. It’s fueled by an appropriate level of paranoia and an appropriately jaundiced view of the government for the subgenre.
I only have three real complaints. First, while I could give you a pretty long list of characteristics for the characters I described above and even other, more minor characters, none of them really jump off the page. None of them are quite real. Second, the troll, Reagan, is really, really annoying, as trolls tend to be. Third, I have a particular gripe with the arc for one character. She never quite lives up to the role she is supposed to play in the story and that part falls a bit flat.
Disclosure: Harper Voyager sent me a copy of Zer0es.