Chuck Wendig’s new novel, Zer0es, is more cyber and more thrilling than most cyber thrillers I’ve read. From the very first page, it’s evident that Wendig is either secretly a world-class hacker in his own right, or he’s done so much research that he has become not only comfortable, but fluent in the technical and paranoia-fueled online world that hackers inhabit. Either way, he’s definitely on the NSA’s watchlist — but this book should be on their reading list as well, as Zer0es is an entertaining and timely addition to the subgenre.
The novel focuses on five hackers recruited by the U.S. government, given the opportunity to avoid conviction, jail time, and exposure by committing their services to a top-secret program. Being hackers, they don’t just blindly follow orders, and soon they’re asking questions and digging much deeper than anyone ever expected them to, and coming up with shocking and frightening answers.
With the fantastic TV series Leverage named as one of the novel’s touchstones, it’s not too surprising that each of the hacker main characters has a specific role to play: social engineer, cyber criminal, hacktivist, internet troll, cipherpunk. Their situations and backgrounds may remind some readers of recent news headlines; Chance Dalton’s situation clearly recalls the Steubenville High School rape case, while Aleena Kattan’s political agenda is inspired by Anonymous’ involvement in the Arab Spring. But just as Leverage‘s Parker is more than a thief, Wendig fleshes out his characters beyond their stereotypes, often subverting your expectations of who they really are, what motivates them, and what they’ll do next. By the end of the novel, you become invested in and care for even the most unlikable characters, which is both satisfying and unfortunate in a book with a startlingly high body count.
Striking a balance between not-so-riveting computer time and real world action is challenging in stories like this, but Wendig handles it deftly, and the novel is incredibly fast-paced. A big revelation, twist, or cliffhanger seems to hit readers every few pages. I am not often moved to swear at books or authors while reading, especially when I’m having so much fun, but many a chapter ended with me muttering, “Jesus Christ, Chuck.” This book is bloody and gruesome and too compelling to put down. You just have to wait for your pulse to slow, shake your head, and keep turning the pages.
The book also isn’t burdened by techsposition, a tendency to include too much computer jargon and explaining every scintillating facet of their technological exploits. But there’s enough for non-technical readers to follow along, and plenty for those who know a bit more. A lot of the hacking in the book is more than realistic — it’s actually real in the world today, and if Wendig’s representation of how easy it is to hack your social network accounts or even your car doesn’t creep you out sufficiently, you’d better start Googling. So much of the technology in the first half of the book is so accurate, by the time Wendig starts pulling out the slightly less believable black boxes, most readers will be happy to accept them as well-earned creative license and move on.
However, that same contemporary, convincing portrayal of computers and hacking may also work against the book as the plot progresses and takes a decidedly science fictional turn that strains credibility. Despite the shift in tone and shaken expectations, I was happy to ride it out to the end. Perhaps more disturbing is the possibility that Wendig is right about this secret government program too, since everything else is right on the mark. If he soon disappears under mysterious circumstances, we’ll have our answer.
Although the prologue/epilogue of “Chapter 0″ fell flat for me, they’re short enough to simply ignore. Overall, Zer0es is a terrific success: an exciting, scary, and often funny novel that offers fresh insights into what it means and what it’s like to be a hacker. It now has a place among my favorite books featuring hacking, and it has certainly raised the bar for those that follow.
Zer0es by Chuck Wendig is out today from Harper Voyager. My review is based on the uncorrected advance reader’s edition.