I’ve been a voracious reader all my life, and as much as my college career pointed towards one in movies or TV, I’ve always ranked books as vastly superior. Put it this way: Although I once presumed (and still do) to be worthy of making TV shows or movies, I’ve never felt skilled enough — or driven enough — to write fiction.
Which no doubt contributes to my admiration and appreciation of those who can pull me into their fictional world and entertain, educate, or enlighten me with only their words (no score, no images, no editing).
Last week I read Zer0s (2015), by Chuck Wendig, and Burning Roses (2020), by S.L. Huang, and thoroughly enjoyed both. In fact, I gulped down both of these fast-paced (and very different) adventures in single sittings. Both would make pretty good movies, too.
Chuck Wendig is new to me, but not to the science fiction scene. He’s a fairly new addition to that scene; his earliest works appear around 2010 or 2011. He’s been quite prolific since, publishing over two-dozen novels, working also in the comics world, and writing for his blog, Terrible Minds.
Zer0s is a fast-paced adventure about a group of rag-tag misfit hackers brought together by a shadowy government organization apparently for the purpose of… well, that’s one of the mysteries.
I’ll warn you now that discussing this is going to involve spoilers. Too much of the end game is woven into the story to ignore. There wouldn’t be much to say about the book otherwise. So, if spoilers ruin your day, skip down to the next section.
The first few chapters deal with how Hollis Copper, FBI agent on-loan to (probably) the NSA (or maybe the CIA or military intelligence or someone no one ever hears about), captures the five hackers that are the story’s main protagonists. Each of them is an illegal hacker of some stripe. All are very clever, but Hollis brings them down with ease.
The five are interrogated separately — the government knows everything — and offered a choice: a long jail sentence (and loved ones knowing about their crimes), or they agree to participate in a secret mission for their government. After which they will (supposedly) be released. Not much of a choice, and all accept.
They are a diverse group. Wade Earthman (the family name was originally Erdmann), in his 60s, a veteran, is a backwoods conspiracy fanatic, with a WikiLeaks style anonymous blog and a lot of weaponry and explosives. DeAndre Mitchell is an identity thief (main scam: secret card readers at gas stations). Aleena Kattan has been using her job at a major telecommunications company to help with Arab Spring attempts to bring down a tyrannical Iranian government. Reagan Stolper is an Anonymous-style troll who just loves messing with people.
Chance Dalton is the story’s main protagonist and point of view. He’s also the one who appears, at least at first, to not belong — he’s an inferior amateur compared to the rest of them, a “script kiddie.” Yet he was apparently (mysteriously) selected as necessary for the group, and it turns out that, while his hacking skills are paltry, his human-hacking skills (the old-fashioned kind of hacking) are better than any of theirs.
They are taken from their separate interrogations to The Lodge — a remote camp where they are to be trained for their task. When they arrive they find they are just one of many groups that have been coerced into participating in whatever the government is up to.
The initial tasks they are given involve “pen tests” (penetration tests) of various organizations. All are monitored at all times, and the guards have very bad attitudes. Chance get beaten several times because he can’t keep his mouth shut.
Sliding into spoiler territory, they begin to hear about something named “Typhon” — apparently some kind of computer system. The reader has already encountered the name from Hollis Copper. It seems this Typhon selected each hacker at The Lodge and determined the teams.
As the story develops, the reader begins to get hints that Typhon is a sophisticated AI, and the pen tests the hackers have been assigned are actually tests of Typhon’s systems and security. All the companies the hackers were asked to invade had already been invaded by Typhon.
Major Spoiler: It isn’t until much later than we learn what Typhon really is. It’s an AI, alright, but it’s based on unwilling human brains — people who were abducted and used because they had powerful minds that could contribute to Typhon. All are unwilling except for Typhon’s creator who gave herself willingly.
Typhon, of course, intends world domination for the sake of humanity. Typhon will make the world right and nice and peaceful. (A story plot that goes back at least to the 1970 film, Colossus: The Forbin Project.)
Once the pen tests are completed, Typhon has no further use for the hacker groups at The Lodge and orders them all exterminated. The five hackers, and Hollis, barely escape with their lives. No one else does.
By now they’ve figured out what’s going on and, along with Hollis Copper, determine to stop Typhon. Six very different people, not really friends, against an extremely powerful AI.
The plot in this really moves, and it’s hard to put down (so I didn’t until I finished).
I was reminded vaguely of the CBS show Person of Interest in having an AI as a character and in having that AI’s tentacles into everything (every camera, every credit card transaction, every passenger list). In that show the AI was a white hat, but Typhon doesn’t have the restraint or morals Harold Finch instilled in The Machine.
One thing that keeps the story popping is how diverse the group is. It takes them a considerable amount of time (and effort) to get along at all. In the end, of course, they do become a close group. (Or close-ish, anyway.)
Most of the first part of the story is well-grounded in current technology. Wendig does get a bit science fictional, not just with Typhon using human brains, but in the ability to have its minions drill a hole in someone’s skull and insert some kind of wireless device that gives Typhon total control over the person. Typhon begins building its own army of human drones.
The book ends on an open ending that would permit further stories, and there is a sequel, Invasive, that was published in 2016.
There is some hidden depth to what is mainly a rippin’ good yarn in ideas about security versus freedom and the loss of privacy in the modern era. Wendig is too busy taking us for a great ride to wallow in these, but they are there. Reagan Stolper, in particular, the least likeable character by far, is worth paying some attention to.
Two thumbs up, a strong Ah! rating, and highly recommended. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for more of Wendig’s work, and I’d like to read that sequel.
I am not a fan of reboots, but they do offer at least some chance at original storytelling. I am even less a fan of remakes, because I see them as fundamentally cowardly. Some far less skilled storyteller trading on the skills of their betters.
Good case in point, the live-action remake of Cowboy Bebop (which I think fails right out the gate for (a) being live-action of an animated story and (b) the cowardly revisiting of a vastly superior well they aren’t fit to drink from).
Not a fan of the remake (although I’ll try giving it a second chance now that I realize how bad it is and can adjust), and I won’t say more about it here (but just you wait until I give it that second chance).
What I usually do like in storytelling, often very much, are pastiches, satires, parodies, and very creative takes on the original source. For instance, I’ve loved many of the stranger retellings of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol.
Fairy tales, in particular, lend themselves to imaginative takes, and in her novella, Burning Roses (2020), S.L. Huang has a lot of fun and tells a pretty good adventure story along the way.
Imagine that Little Red Riding Hood (she of the scarlet cape), upon killing the wolf that ate grannie, became a dedicated killer of other intelligent animals she viewed as threat (bigotry against intelligent human-acting animals is a thing in that reality).
For instance, those three bears that were clearly menacing that sweet golden-haired child whose home they’d apparently invaded. Having only one bullet in her rifle Rose needs to wait until all three are lined up in her sights (grannie taught her to shoot, by the way).
Except, oops. It was their house, and Goldie the thief. The giant chairs should have been a giveaway. Now Rose is a criminal and bound to Goldie by her awful secret.
Meanwhile, Rose has met Mei, who was sold to a beast who inhabits a castle. That beast, a former nobleman cursed by a witch, needs someone to love him to break the curse. Solution: buy a young girl and keep her isolated in hopes that she’ll fall in love with him. (Rather awful plan, yeah?)
Rose and Mei fall in love, eventually do end up together, and in the process Rose frees herself from Goldie (who gets turned into a frog).
But Rose is a killer, and the authorities eventually do come for her. She flees from Mei and their daughter.
She’s found and taken in by the Huntress, the Archer Hou Yi, who has a troublesome backstory of her own. Both are now middle-aged (too old for this shit), but an attack on a nearby village by a pair of sunbirds (giant birds made of fire) sets them on an adventure into both their pasts.
It’s a short read, a novella, and it moves along nicely. I couldn’t put this one down, either. I’ll give it a middling Ah! rating and recommend it for those who enjoy fantasy with a bit of twisted self-awareness.
It was fun trying to spot all the fairy tale references, and I suspect many from Chinese history went completely over my head. (One of my college student films was a fairy tale pastiche involving Red Riding Hood, who drove a red convertible Mustang, and other fairy tale characters, so I’ve long enjoyed this sort of thing.)
I’ve mentioned S.L. Huang before in connection with her Cas Russell series (three books so far), which I’ve enjoyed okay. Huang seems an interesting person. She’s a firearms expert and Hollywood stunt person. She’s the first professional female armorer in Hollywood. It seems to inform her work; the actions scenes have a life to them many authors never achieve (never having been in a fight), and her descriptions of weapons are, of course, from a point of considerable experience.
Stay hacking, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.