Chuck Wendig’s reputation is built on a lively online presence, a willingness to share hard-won writing advice with profane flair, and a stable of books that seem to share one goal: waste no time hooking the reader and force them to turn just one more page, read just one more chapter. His books include the Blackbirds series (featuring one of his most popular characters, the haunted and morally conflicted psychic Miriam Black) and the YA Heartland series, and there’s nary a sleepy chapter to be found anywhere among them.
Due to his no-nonsense style, Wendig’s not everyone’s cup of tea. A quick review scan, especially for his entry into the rebooted Star Wars canon, Star Wars: Aftermath, finds plenty of folks unhappy not only with his choice to tell the story in present tense, but also with his love of short, direct sentences. Wendig owes no small part of his style to vintage pulp and noir.
That style definitely works in Zeroes, a tech-savvy thriller that throws a band of hackers together under extreme circumstances. Chance Dalton, ostensibly the book’s protagonist and most readers’ stand-in, possesses the weakest technical skills but knows how to navigate human-to-human interaction. Reagan Stolper specializes in trolling anyone she sees growing an outsized ego (a big list), while Wade Earthman is an old-school conspiracist and collector of leaked government information. DeAndre Mitchell makes his money via credit card skimmers and similar scams, while Aleena Kattan’s telecommunications job actually serves as a front for helping her allies in the Arab Spring.
Each is abducted and given a “choice” to spend a year working for the government at a secret location called the Lodge, using their skills in the service of whatever shadowy and icky work the NSA, CIA, or whoever is pulling the strings, calls for.
Naturally, this collection of white hats and black hats, frauds and devotees, don’t get along. Wade’s cynical but patriotic distrust of America clashes with Aleena’s idealistic and more global distrust of America; DeAndre just wants to keep his head down, do his time, and get out; Chance is automatically on the whole hacker community’s bad side for pretending to be part of an Anonymous-type organization called Faceless; and Reagan simply doesn’t like (or trust) people to the point where she does everything she can to alienate them.
Circumstances being what they are, the five find ways to navigate these issues in the service of a greater goal: finding out just what the heck exists behind the seemingly connected tasks — penetration tests on corporate servers to start with, culminating with full-bore hacks of strategic foreign targets — they are given to perform. There’s something called Typhon moving around just behind all of these company names and encrypted files, and if they can just find a way to dodge the Lodge’s 24/7 total surveillance, they just might figure out Typhon’s true purpose and agenda.
Of course, that opens up its own Pandora’s Box full of problems and dangers. On the best day, shadowy government agencies don’t like being snooped on, especially by their own snoops.
Along the way, Wendig offers a sobering collision of technological worries from our increasingly connected world. Bluetooth-enabled cars, refrigerators connected to the Internet, social media, home security systems, nations hacking each other: in Zeroes, it’s a very short jump from there to a world of uber-surveillance that makes our current world of wiretapping and data mining look like a kindergarten-level science fair project.
It’s a pretty sure bet that Edward Snowden’s trove of documents didn’t hold anything like Typhon, no matter how hard some people are probably actually trying to make that kind of electronic atrocity a reality. The book’s hard tech is a little “handwavy” in spots, but Wendig is open about the challenges of making it exciting to read about people sitting in chairs at computers. Despite being trapped at the Lodge, the self-styled Zeroes are always on the move, either because they’re trying to discover something or because danger’s breathing down their necks.
The pace of Zeroes slows down only occasionally as its characters jump from one dilemma to the next, increasingly cursing the over-connectivity of the world they’ve spent their lives exploiting. Along with that breathless pace comes a growing sense of unease for the reader.
The extremes of Typhon’s true nature aside, Wendig’s characters point out the most troubling aspects of how many doors we have into our private lives, and how secrets can easily be discovered and used for leverage. It’s all too easy to see the ways that the Zeroes’ security is constantly compromised, and realize that those are very natural extensions of the technology that surrounds us today. What’s more, it’s not likely that anything short of a technological cataclysm will ever come close to doing away with those easily opened doors.