Zeroes: A Novel
- By Chuck Wendig
- Harper Voyager
- 418 pp.
- Reviewed by Jeffrey Krizman
- October 15, 2015
A sluggishly paced thriller that suffers, in part, from its own immense scope.
Zeroes is an ambitious seven-act, third-person, sci-fi thriller incorporating so many storylines and clichés that it turns out to be an almost generic epic, which isn’t inherently bad, depending on what you’re looking for in a story.
The novel follows a group of mostly quirky hackers who are compelled to work for the government and who unwittingly stumble into a danger they can neither understand nor escape. The main characters, three males and two females, must band together to face an enemy more influential and deadly than they could ever be. The story, however, is fractured.
Zeroes tries to combine parts of “The Terminator,” “The Matrix,” and “I, Robot” with other stories, frameworks, and clichés. Stereotypes abound among the supporting cast, which includes a promiscuous woman rethinking her actions, a terrorist with a heart of gold, and members of pseudo-mythological cults, among others.
The promising opening act presents an “Ocean’s Eleven’s” montage of getting the team together, which goes on for over 40 pages. I can forgive a slow start, but there are five people to be gathered, and each intro is told separately.
Here, too, the author mines Central Casting.
There’s the Incompetent Underdog, the Poor Black Guy, the Hacktivist, the Internet Troll, and the Conspiracy Nut. The characters don’t get fleshed out in any significant way until the story is around halfway over; even then, only an additional shade or two gets added. There are some good lines and descriptions for these characters — just not enough of them.
The immediate conflict in Zeroes is an odd one. After the hackers are stuck together, the story enters a sort of high-school-drama phase, but with graphic violence and a pretense of greater villainy to come. There are juvenile cliques, love interests, sexual awkwardness, and malicious plots, along with other standard fare.
It doesn’t quite work because the characters act differently from how they are originally presented, making the content feel unfocused. When humor comes in, it’s goofy and out of place, if not downright forced. The most formulaic scenes — like the bro scenes, eureka moments, and attempted plot twists — only exacerbate the problem.
The bigger issue is that the mysterious primary antagonist — thinly veiled from the get-go — doesn’t create a sense of how high the stakes are for these characters and, indeed, humanity itself. Moreover, the “evil” nature of this antagonist is an arguable point which I found myself contemplating.
Zeroes is not without its strengths, including some memorable action scenes and smooth camera shifts from character A to character B. But even here, off-kilter pop-culture references trip up the narrative.
Unfortunately, neither the characters nor the story really come alive until the book nears its end. It amounts to a chess match played only with pawns and a king or two. Sure, you’re given a solid framework to begin with, but it takes mainly endurance — not strategy or cunning — to see the game play out.
Jeffrey Krizman is a student at Emerson College working on a BFA in writing, literature, and publishing. He is also finishing his first high-fantasy novel.