Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, Deborah Biancotti

Westerfeld's ability to craft unique stories is showcased in his newest series, Zeroes, about a group of teens with strange superpowers.

Five teens with strange superpowers narrator this story. Ethan Cooper is Scam. His superpower is "the voice" which seems to know details about other people. Ethan has no idea how this knowledge comes to him, but somehow he knows just what to say. The voice gets Scam anything he wants. His narrative opens the novel because what happens to him sets the stage for the story.

Ethan began the night before on a date with a gorgeous woman. After leaving his date on the street, Ethan decided to try and hitch a ride home from people leaving the nightclubs in Cambria. However things go awry when "the voice" intervenes and Ethan finds himself in the company of a scary man called Craig who drives to a remote house outside of town. Terrified, Ethan steals Craig's car after the voice lures him out of it, and heads back to Cambria. There he waits at the Moonstruck Diner for the Cambria Central Bank to open. It turns out Craig's duffel bag, which was left in the back seat of the car, is filled with rolls of money.

Ethan enters the bank to deposit the money he's stolen from Craig only to be caught up in a bank robbery. With the vault locked, the robbers begin taking customer's wallets and jewelry. When one of the robbers becomes interested in Ethan's duffel bag, the voice speaks up wreaking havoc by convincing the robber, Jerry, that his partners are not loyal. This leads to a shootout and one of the robbers is killed.

Meanwhile after a night of clubbing, a young woman, Kelsie Laszlo, gathers a group of friends around her to go for breakfast at the Moonstruck Diner.  Kelsie (Mob) has the innate ability to draw people together and to control the emotions of that crowd. Kelsie notices Ethan in the diner, but she doesn't know who he is. She also notices a black car driving past the diner several times. When the car returns once more Kelsie is horrified to see her father in the back of the car. Kelsie understands what is happening in the bank and using her usual abilities, attempts to keep all those inside, calm. This succeeds until the shootout. She is relieved to see that her father has survived but also notes that the boy from the diner is escorted out by police and taken for questioning.

For Ethan, his troubles are only beginning. He is taken to the Central Cambria Police Department and is questioned by Detective Fuentes and King who suspect Ethan may have been part of the robbery. King asks Ethan if he has ever met Jerry Laszlo. Ethan denies knowing Laszlo they tell him that the girl next to him in the bank, Sonia Stoller told them that he talked to the him. She also shot a video of the robbery in progress. The video clearly shows Ethan talking to Jerry like he knows him and mentioning a girl named Kelsie. When they ask what is in the duffel bag, Ethan decides it's time to give them the number of his "lawyer". That lawyer happens to be Nataniel Saldana (Nate), also a person with an unusual ability -  to focus the energy of a group onto a single goal. Nate who goes by the pseudonym of Bellwether,  is the unofficial head of the Zeros and is often referred to by the other Zeroes as "Glorious Leader". He also happens not to be Ethan's friend anymore like the other Zeros because of what the "voice" spewed out during a meeting over a year ago.

At this point the narrative moves to Flicker whose real name is Riley. Flicker is blind but can see by entering the vision of the people around her. This gives her a unique perspective on what's happening around her. Her twin sister, Lily, often reads to Flicker or tells her stories which help Flicker understand life. Flicker is in therapy because her extremely well educated parents are struggling to discover why she stopped reading braille and is basically illiterate. They don't know that she can see through other people's eyes. After her session, Flicker gets a message from Nate who tells her that Scam has contacted him asking for help and the he will contact the others.

A third Zero, Chizara known as Crash,  is working at Bob's fix-it shop. Crash has the ability to bring down electrical systems. Technology with its microchips and electronic signals cause her intense pain. When Crash gets Nate's message about helping Scam she feels conflicted - she's at work but she'd love to go to the police station and have the opportunity "to check out some serious tech up close, and maybe bring some of it down -- to do exactly what she spent her whole life holding back from." On the other hand,  Scam is not someone she really wants to help. Chizara remembers how Scam told her "You're a demon. You're a walking massacre waiting to happen!"

Flicker, Crash, and a fourth Zero,  Anon whose real name is Thibault and whose super power is that no one ever remembers him, meet outside the Central Cambria Police Department. Nate directs the operation telling Crash that Flicker will help her get inside by directing her where to go (as she can see through the different people in the building where Ethan is and the layout of the building). Once inside, Crash is to bring down various electrical systems allowing Crash and Scam/Ethan to simply walk out. However, once inside, the complex electrical systems make it difficult for Crash to act subtly and safely. As she begins bringing down systems, Crash begins to lose control, crashing all the systems in the building. In the ensuing panic Scam and Crash manage to leave the CCPD building.

The four Zeroes meet at Nate/Bellwether's home. A year earlier Nate had brought the five Zeroes together to help them train and develop their unusual powers. However the group splintered after Ethan's "voice" antagonized each of them, causing tension and division. Nate wants to learn how Ethan/Scam got himself into trouble. At first Ethan isn't honest with the group but eventually does tell them how he found the money and came to be in the bank when it was robbed. When Tibault/Anonymous shows up he tells the group that the money is the least of their problems. Chizara's crash of the police station resulted in a mass escape of prisoners from the basement cells including Jerry Laszlo, the man involved in the bank robbery.  The group decides that Anon will hide Ethan until they can determine how to fix things.Flicker will hold on to the money until it's needed.

Anon takes Ethan to his "home" which is located in the penthouse of the Hotel Magnifique, a luxury hotel in Cambria. He's able to live there unknown to the staff because of his ability to be forgotten. However when Ethan leaves the hotel to try to contact his mom, he is quickly recognized as the guy in the video Sonia posted of the robbery. Meanwhile Kelsie meets her father and learns that he is in deep trouble. His accomplice in the robbery was related to a Russian mobster, Alexei Bagrov. Kelsie's father owes Bagrov a great deal of money and he asks her to get money owed to him from a friend. Kelsie goes to see her father's friend, Fig who gives her the money. Fig tells her he can't understand how the guy in the bank knew about the robbery. As she's leaving, Kelsie notices that Craig and a group of guys are headed out to try to find the boy in the bank video. He's been sighted at the Hotel Magnifique. Determined to get to him before Craig does, Kelsie runs to the hotel and manages to get to the penthouse apartment. Ethan's voice tells Kelsie he can help her father with the Bagrovs and Kelsie warns both Ethan and Thibault that Craig will be at the penthouse within minutes. Very quickly it becomes apparent Ethan, Kelsie and Thibault are going to need the combined powers of all the Zeroes if they are to stay ahead of Craig, the Bagrovs and the police. Will this new mission finally bring them closer together or tear them apart?


Discussion

Zeroes is a collaborative effort by three authors and is the first in a planned trilogy. It is about a group of Millennials who share the same birth date in the year 2000 and are gifted with special powers that are in the words of Westerfeld, "crowd-based".

The story involves six teens who are social misfits because of their very unusual abilities. These abilities bring with them moral implications and create intense conflict for some of the Zeroes. This is most evident in Crash whose ability to take down electrical systems can cause great havoc and even result in the death of others. When Crash enters the CCPD to spring Scam she has no intention of hurting anyone. But as she begins to knock out various systems she is unable to control her craving for more, leading her to crash the entire building. This results in a police officer being seriously wounded by escaping prisoners. When questioned by her mother about what happened at the station, Chizara remembers her mother's beliefs about her special powers. "You've got to be responsible about what's inside you. If you hurt anyone -- whether you mean to or not, Chizara -- you've got to find some way to make it right. Settle with your conscience...Square things with the people whose stuff you break. Every time, girl, do you hear me?"  Reflecting on these words of wisdom by her mother make her feel intensely guilty.

When Chizara learns of policeman, Reggie Bright, being seriously injured in the breakout, she is devastated.  She remembers what her mother told her: "Any kind of gift, you can use it wisely or stupidly. Whether it's strength or a good brain, every time you use it: Is this going to hurt anyone? Is this going to do any harm?" Her deep conflict leads Chizara to leave the Zeroes and to question what it is they are trying to accomplish.

Nate's attempts to reconcile with Crash, telling her "we all need each other" leads Chizara to tell him they need to stop "playing with these powers." But Nate insists by using them, they are learning how they work and that she needs to learn how control her powers. Chizara tells Nate that in taking out the police station she has discovered her powers have changed and that she can now "uncrash things". This is new and appears to support his idea that they need to practice in order to understand the limits of their abilities.

When a new Zero, Kelsie - named Mob,  is brought into the group, Nate is excited because this now gives him six Zeroes - which will bring what he calls, "the Curve" into play - the point where his (and the other Zeroes) power is most effective. However, Chizara refuses to be a part of the Zeroes. She believes that she can work on her own to control her abilities but more importantly Chizara recognizes that having a group of six will allow Nate's power to affect them all; it will give him too much control over the Zeroes, leaving no one to resist him.

In contrast to Chizara are Nate and Ethan. Nate is the consummate leader who has an "Ultimate Goal". Because of his ability to focus the energy of a group on one goal, Nate tends to focus on the goal without considering the consequences of the means used. In his mind he tries to downplay Chizara's concerns, telling himself, "So what if she'd slipped a little?" Instead, he blames the prisoners for escaping and hurting the police officer and not the fact that Chizara lack of control crashed a system designed to protect the policeman. Despite this Nate remains determined to understand and develop the Zeroes powers.

Ethan seems to be the one with the least control over his strange ability. The voice is always trying to get what Ethan subconsciously wants. This makes Ethan the least liked in the group and fuels his hurt. When he meets Kelsie, Ethan gradually begins to change. He likes Kelsie and uses the voice to try to help her save her father. But even when that doesn't go right, Kelsie tells him that the other Zeroes have hope for him. This leads Ethan to use the voice to help Jerry, who is trapped with them and dying to find some peace with what has happened in Kelsie's family.

Thibault/Anonymous's power which is his ability to be forgotten is perhaps the most poignant. One on one, people remember Thibault. But once he's in a crowd, or out of sight, he's quickly forgotten. He can't turn his power off, but he can snip the connection between himself and individuals if need be. He tells Ethan how he came to be living alone and his story is tragic. Seriously ill when he was thirteen, Thibault was taken to hospital by his mother. When his mother decides to leave to tend to his brothers, he begs her not to go, telling her she will forget him. Which is exactly what happens. When he returns home, he discovers his bedroom has been given to his grandmother - his family has forgotten him. He decides he will never have a connection to anyone. However, Westerfeld et al. give Thibault some hope - each of the Zeroes works hard to maintain a connection to him and

Westerfeld et al manage to incorporate a bit of romance into the story with Tibault/Anon and Flicker developing a blossoming affection for each other, while Ethan/Scam and Kelsie/Mob see the beginnings of a friendship. The relationships between all members of the Zeroes is complex and interesting and is part of the most engaging aspect of this novel. It will be interesting to see where this trio of authors takes the Zeroes in their second novel.

Overall the multiple narratives work well, but the novel is a lengthy book to wade through. 

Book Details:

Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti
Toronto: Simon Pulse     2015
546 pp.

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