Zer0s and Burning Roses

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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

18 responses to “Zer0s and Burning Roses

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I didn’t mention it, but Zer0es also has a strong double Terminator vibe. There’s the Skynet taking over aspect, but also an actual Terminator of sorts.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Now I’m reading Invasive, the second book set in that reality. It’s a different story centered on a different protagonist, but Hollis Copper is in the background, and there’s been a brief sighting of Wade Earthman. No mention of the others or or Typhon so far (about halfway through).

    This one moves like the first one. I started it this morning, and will finish later today!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Got distracted and finished it the next day. Wasn’t about hackers, so not quite as much fun. (Actually, it was about hackers, but gene hackers in this case. Hacking ants!)

      It seems like Wendig might lean towards SF horror or fantasy horror more than the harder SF (which is what I liked about Zer0es). I might try another book, but most of his catalog doesn’t catch my eye.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Monday (12/6) I put Leviathan Falls, the ninth and final novel of The Expanse series by the “James S. A. Corey” team, on hold with the library. Initially a 15-week wait, it’s now down to nine!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Meant to comment on this post last week, but got distracted and let it fall between the cracks.

    On Cowboy Bebop, it got cancelled, so you may not want to invest the effort.

    I’ve heard of Wendig, but have never got around to reading his stuff. Burning Roses sounds interesting. I’ll have to keep it in mind for when I’m in the mood for something like that.

    Right now I’m reading Alastair Reynolds’ latest book in the Revelation Space universe. I actually had paused in reading it to attack Leviathan Falls when it dropped. Reynolds stories in this universe are pretty grim when taken together, but still manage to be pretty fun.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I did hear about Cowboy Bebop. I obviously wasn’t the only one who thought that, despite their dedicated efforts to not fuck it up, they fucked it up. They got the easy stuff right, the look and music, but missed badly on the characters and stories. I may yet return to it just to see what they did, but, yeah, the incentive isn’t there as much anymore.

      Wendig seems to lean more towards horror than SF. He seems big in the comics world, so he does superhero stuff, too. The more I look at his catalog, the less I find myself drawn to him. I did enjoy Invasive, the second book from that reality (basically ours), but it was about ants, not computers, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first one. I might try his Miriam Black series.

      Reynolds remains on the list of authors to check out some day if my reading list ever gets short enough that I’m actually looking for something to read. I finally got around to Octavia Butler, so it’s always possible. (I also recently finally got into G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown) and E.W. Hornung (A.J. Raffles). Hell, I might even finish Moby Dick one of these days.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Yeah, Cowboy Bebop worked for me (well mostly), but then I only watched the original a few months ago. It wasn’t lodged in my psyche as a long time cherished memory. I think their mistake was in trying too hard to remake the form of the original, rather than focusing on its feel.

        Granted, focusing on the feel is harder and riskier, because what gave people the feel in the original isn’t going to do it again. It has to be done differently, and that will inevitably invite criticism from people who think they want to see the form again. I think the Foundation show actually is a good example of focusing on the feel rather than form. Of course, CB’s fate shows that focusing on the form is far from risk free.

        I knew there were reasons I hadn’t focused on Wendig. I think he’s also done a Star Wars novel or two. But I’m not attracted to horror, and it’s been a long time since superhero or media franchise stuff interested me.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        They kinda got caught in a Catch-22. Cowboy Bebop is stylized enough, and old enough, that it likely has a fixed fan base. Not a lot of new people are likely to get caught up in a live-action remake. The fans, though, consider it a classic, which makes it a very high bar and a hard act to follow. The reviewer who suggested seeing it as kids playing dress up of a favorite show of theirs was on the mark. They got the childish parts right, but the adult parts went over their head, and it’s the adult parts that made the show what it was. Without those they had nothing. I honestly don’t think it was an artistic choice, but an artistic fail — they just weren’t competent enough or adult enough.

        That’s the problem with Chibnall. He’s a fanboy child with no understanding of the depth of the material he was given control over. I saw the last incoherent mess of an episode in the Flux season. It’s been off the rails since episode three, and last night I discovered that even large amounts of beer don’t help the pain of watching that idiotic drivel. I have no idea what happened, and I don’t care even a little. It’s jaw-droppingly bad writing; no redeeming qualities I could see. At least Cowboy Bebop, decoupled from the source, isn’t as bad as that.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I agree this season of Doctor Who was a mess. There’s a video of Chibnall and Whittaker explaining the story, but I haven’t bothered to watch it. There’s a Screen Rant article that summarizes it: https://screenrant.com/doctor-who-flux-plot-explained-video-chris-chibnall/
        It also makes the point that if you have to put out a video explaining your story, you’ve failed.

        Chibnall reportedly did good work on the show Churchpoint, but for whatever reason, his stewardship of DW has been problematic. I thought he had some good ideas, but his style of storytelling just doesn’t seem to work well with this series. At this point, I’m hoping he doesn’t finish the timeless child arc and leaves it to Davies to come up with something.

        Definitely, at least with CB, you can understand what the hell is going on and it makes some kind of sense.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        My lemon of a Dell laptop crapped out completely and commenting by iPad is too hard, so I’ll pick this up once I get back online.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I read the ScreenRant article and watched as much as I could of the BBC video. His explanation is as shallow and incoherent as his story. It’s interesting how much of what he said was just empty cliches and “duh” stuff. And it’s all about that Timeless child plotline; everything else seems some sort of window dressing he didn’t give much thought to. (It’s been pointed out how casually, almost cheerfully, The Doctor allowed the complete genocide of three races. Compare that to the War Doctor agonizing over his actions. Chibnall is not a mature storyteller.)

        Funny thing about ScreenRant; I used to follow them as a favorite. At some point I realized most of their content didn’t do anything for me — too many “5 Ways Kirk Succeeded; and 5 Ways He Failed” articles or “10 Best” lists that had me scratching my head. But I have found their analysis of Doctor Who generally very cogent and worth reading. Those are about the only ScreenRant articles I bother with anymore. (That Critical Drinker guy I just shared a video from, he’s been really raking Chibnall over the coals, and while I think Drinker takes it too far, I agree with his points entirely.)

        As for Broadchurch, I think it’s one thing to write real-world modern-day stories (borrowed from headlines and lots of similar stories), and another thing entirely to write science fiction. Agatha Christie was amazing, the best, at what she did — she even ventured into some ghost and supernatural short stories — but writing The Time Machine or From the Earth to the Moon would, I’m sure, have been beyond her.

        It’s hard to imagine what Chibnall thought he was doing. The story seems guaranteed to alienate modern fans. I’m not even sure how many classic fans appreciate his revision. It seems Broadchurch and the Timeless Child thing are ideas he’s had since he was young. It apparently hit on Broadchurch, but — at least with a lot of fans — really missed here.

        Be nice if the next incarnation of The Doctor can just wake up from a nightmare or a false virtual reality induced by an enemy. Anything to erase Chibnall’s scrawled graffiti from the wall.

        On a more positive note, two anime I’ve seen and really liked: Gate (2015; one season, 26 episodes) and Samurai Champloo (2004; one season, 26 episodes). I’m almost through with the latter; only a few more episodes. It was recommended as a spiritual successor to Cowboy Bebop, and I quite agree. Not just similar, but a few eps seem like deliberate homages to eps in CB. (I’ve also had Outlaw Star (1998; one season, 26 episodes) recommended for similar reason. It’s in my queue.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On Doctor Who, I wasn’t really all that attached to the Time Lords, so the idea of the Timeless Child arc, in and of itself, doesn’t bother me all that much. I like there being new mystery about the Doctor’s past. Although I think Chibnall went overboard on the retconning. But the bigger issue for me is just the execution. I’m also not a fan of the heavy handed messaging, although there didn’t seem much of it this season.

        Those anime look interesting. Thanks! I saw Outlaw Star and enjoyed it. It often gets silly, and felt like it bogged down in the middle a bit. But the overall series was pretty good.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think we’re actually seeing much the same thing but expressing it in different ways. It’s definitely about Chibnall’s execution and storytelling. It’s not an attachment to the Time Lords, per se (I never watched much of classic Who and have no sense of its canon), but that the storyline is stupid and alters everything we’ve seen in rebooted Who. It isn’t so much reconning the Time Lords as it is The Doctor.

        I know you’re not really all that attached, and I have to ask: Is there any source material to which you are attached? What would you view as a too-hard-to-swallow change to some cherished source? You once told me you didn’t understand how people could have life-long passions, and this feeling of outrage we fans feel comes from having a strong, if not life-long, passion for something we feel is being damaged or disrespected. Have you ever felt that?

        I find many anime do bog down a bit in the middle. Middle book doldrums sort of thing. That and the halfway through twist seem almost standard in anime.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On source material, I probably had stronger feelings of attachment when I was younger. I mentioned my struggles with ST:TNG and the BSG remake the other day. I also struggled with the way most Star Trek movies were done. More recently, the treatment of the classical Star Wars characters in the new trilogy felt like a bit of a violation; I didn’t think it needed to be done that way, and it lessened my enthusiasm for the new movies.

        In the case of the Doctor, the series has always kept his / her history and role in Gallifreyan society pretty enigmatic. The Doctor’s relation with that society always seemed rocky. So it didn’t seem like there was that much to be attached to. Finding out the Doctor transcends the Time Lords, I found kind of cool, although it could have been executed much better.

        But there was an aspect I found a bit hard to swallow. I wasn’t bothered by having a female incarnation of the Doctor, but Chibnell pushed it farther than I thought he needed to, basically showing one or two token male incarnations but sticking to female as much as possible. It feels like another manifestation of his impulse to engage in heavy handed political messaging, which is guaranteed to piss off at least half the fans. One thing I dislike about him is he seems more interested in that messaging than in entertainment.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Synchronicity strikes again. BentleyMom and I tried a Mexican place new to us for lunch today (very good; definitely will return). One of the many topics of conversation was that very thing: aging, among other things, does raise the bar for what’s worth caring about. There’s even a great line in Hamlet about it, “…for at your age the hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble, and waits upon the judgment…”

        For many, myself very much included, there is also one of those nagging “it’s the principle of the thing” feelings. I think most would be outraged if someone pissed on the Mona Lisa or spray-painted the Great Wall. It isn’t a personal violation so much as a pointless act of destruction of someone’s good work. As always, the question is where one draws the line. When is it taking things too far and ruining the efforts of others?

        That said, I never was a classic Doctor Who fan, and I can’t say I care one way or the other about the Timeless Child. I’m more struck by the fanboy aspect of it and what it all says about Chibnall. For me, and I think for you, too, the actual crime was bad storytelling. The retcon is fine if he tells an engaging story, but what we got was an incoherent mess very heavy on political messaging. All but revolved around it sometimes. It was boring and unoriginal. A rehash of old bits. There were a few good ideas, but they were lost in all the tacked-on bullshit, noise, and fan-service callbacks. And, as I said, Chibnall is a fanboy and an emotional child; he doesn’t have the maturity or intellect to write a truly adult story. As you surely know, why many of us favored Star Trek and Doctor Who is because they used to be for adults. Now, not so much; they’re just as childish as most stories.

        I have to at long last admit I think Jodie Whittaker is a bad The Doctor because she just isn’t a very good actor. She has no depth. It’s really noticable after Capaldi’s rendition, but Smith and (especially) Tennant also rendered The Doctor with vast depth. They had the gravatas to play a hundreds-year-old spacetime-traveling alien who is well acquainted with death. Whittaker,… not so much. She gave us a hyper-active child. Chibnall made it clear to the BBC that, if they wanted him, they got her, so we got them both. I loved the idea of a female The Doctor, but they cast the wrong actor.

        It isn’t just that males are tokens now. Notice how the male characters are usually portrayed — weak, ineffectual, dumb — compared to the strong female characters. We’re in an era where some are getting their licks in for the ills of the past. Revenge season. Socially understandable, but it makes for really shitty storytelling. Stories with agendas are propaganda, and propaganda is almost necessarily shallow and boring.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Here’s The Critical Drinker again:

        My jaw kinda dropped when I watched this, because it’s exactly what I’ve been saying for many years. I might not necessarily be right (although I think I am at the least right-ish), but I’m not alone in my perceptions.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Here’s another I think hits the nail squarely on the head:

      • Wyrd Smythe

        One more about Doctor Who and the Timeless Child:

        (Gee. We already have a The Doctor. Why do we also need a The Timeless Child?)

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