Zero World | Jason M. Hough | 2015 | Titan Books | 489p (640p with Dire Earth novella) | Review copy | Buy the book
Peter Caswell is about to embark on the most important mission he’ll never remember. Caswell is a spy, an assassin, but with a difference. Not only has his technologically-enhanced brain been re-worked to turn him into a superhuman killing machine, but it has also been ‘hotwired’ so that he will forget days at a time. Once the trigger is set, he will carry out his orders, keeping an eye on the hours or days counting down on his watch until the moment of reset arrives. He will then forget everything since the trigger, with no idea what he has done or where, with only one clue that he always leaves himself – the number of bottles turned round in the fridge tells him how many lives he has ended. With no memories, Peter does not feel like a killer. He knows, though, that he is deadly.
Some decades in the future from now, Peter Caswell is given a mission, hot on the heels of his last, and it is an emergency. This means that none of the rituals he normally needs to ease his conscience can take place. Years ago a spaceship, Venturi, vanished. It has now re-appeared with all of its crew dead but one. Crew member Alice Vale is missing. Peter is sent up aboard vessel Pawn Takes Bishop to investigate the ghostship and trace Alice. When one of Pawn’s crew makes a discovery on one of the Venturi computers, Peter undergoes an emergency trigger. Knowing that he has a set number of days to complete his task, and assured that he will forget everything he does during that time, Peter is instantly transformed and his mission begins.
On the trail of Alice’s landing craft, Peter finds himself travelling through a rift in space, a wormhole, which takes him to a world that he recognises. It looks like Earth, it is inhabited by humans who speak an English dialect, but it is not the planet he left. This is a twin of Earth, a planet with 1950s’ technology. This planet has undergone a trial that Earth escaped – a bombardment of asteroids a couple of centuries before has left it with a vast area of desolation separating north from south, both regions now regarding the other with nothing but hostility and potential violence. Melni is a southern spy working in the north, investigating the north’s recent leaps in technology. Suddenly, Melni finds her mission compromised by a most unusual stranger.
Zero World is packed with thrills from the outset. The trigger to Peter’s brain sets off the action and it never lets up, not least because we know that the clock is ticking until Peter resets. It’s a novel premise and it is handled brilliantly by Jason M. Hough, author of the fabulous science fiction trilogy, the Dire Earth Cycle. Zero World takes the strengths of the Dire Earth Cycle – adventure, shocks, excellent characterisation, mystery – and turns them all up a notch. Zero World might be a thrillfest but it is also ambitious, clever and confident.
In many ways, Zero World has the feel of a Cold War spy thriller, although it is hard to work out which of the two factions on this alien Earth is the side worth fighting for. Peter Caswell has to scramble around to understand the politics and beliefs of the planet, just as Melni has to come to terms with the reasons for Peter’s difference. To call it a massive culture difference would be quite the understatement. Both Peter and Melni are in for shocks, and matters aren’t helped by the fact that Peter’s body cannot cope with many aspects of life on this world. The relationship between Peter and Melni is wonderfully depicted, the little differences they discover in each other adding charm and humour when all around them there is bloody mayhem – and a rising body count. The worldbuilding is particularly well done – everything is familiar enough and yet still frighteningly different and sinister.
Peter is an intriguing figure and not your typical hero – constantly struggling with his conscience and the morality of his choices – but Melni is the delight of Zero World. She is such a likeable figure, committed to her cause and enormously brave, but also open-minded, warm and generous. She’s a pleasure to spend time with.
Zero World is a self-contained thriller but I have every hope for a sequel.
Fans of the Dire Earth Cycle like me will be very pleased to discover that Zero World is accompanied by the prequel novella, The Dire Earth, in its entirety. Major bonus!