Plot: A timely tech thriller set during a lockdown during a pandemic, Nicolaides’ debut sets a sprawling international cast loose in a complex, cleverly plotted story concerning the company that has created an immersive VR video game for the superwealthy, and the pressing problem of AI-driven security drones that have decided that infected humans must be killed for the benefit of humanity. The novel surges along, leaping from character to character and thread to thread, tying them all together in surprising ways. Its speed, large cast, short chapters, and detached third-person narration keep the characters remote, and the book's story and perspective shifts often can be hard work to keep up with. At times, the onslaught of ideas and milieus is dazzling, as the author vaults from corporate meetings to crime scenes to gamers at home on their toilet chairs, all with an emphasis on technology and satire. But the occasional chapters written as a samurai epic (without proper nouns for readers to invest in) are more a chore than an atmospheric puzzle.
Prose/Style: Zero One’s wild, twisting plot allows Nicolaides many opportunities to demonstrate an impish wit, and at its best, when it guides readers through its leaps in perspective, the book moves with an off-kilter propulsiveness. In its first third, though, many of the short chapters build to flat endings that don't make clear why the story has followed these particular characters or compellingly connect to the next chapter. The author's satiric impulse at times undercuts the novel's thriller aspects, as when a character takes the time to deliver a monologue about Quentin Tarantino films before cutting off a man's ear. The phrasing often is flat, especially when characters are performing tasks that aren't that interesting, and the book would be better served by a thorough proofreading. The book's relentless attention to breasts, starting in the first chapter, is wearying and dated.
Originality: The situations that Nicolaides crafts, and the solutions to problems that his characters arrive at, are inventive, exciting, and tied to our present moment.
Character Development: Zero One introduces a multitude of characters but takes little time to reveal them to readers or to make them unique and compelling. That means that when the story returns to a character that it left behind a dozen chapters before, readers will have to flip back to recall that character's traits and dilemmas. Many characters, like The Belgian and The Frenchman, don't get real names, which contributes to the feeling that the novel favors archetypes over people. Occasionally, a flash of unique characterization (especially of Okumura and his daughter, or the blind Serguei) suggests a richer, more rewarding approach.
Date Submitted: July 08, 2020
Readers will be immersed in the setting as they follow a wide variety of characters. Some of them, such as Kimiko Okumura, a young Japanese girl in virus-riddled London, are well crafted; Kimiko’s family tragedy pulls powerfully at the heartstrings. Other characters are lacking that depth, or are only loosely connected to the plot. The Belgian is gratuitously oversexed, and teen gamer Chiaki is a sadly shallow caricature of a child refusing to grow up. As the story shifts from one character and arc to another, momentum frequently stutters, and the abrupt ending leaves many things unresolved.
The novel is overburdened by a staggering amount of detail, but during the times when the narrative is flowing and focused, that detail has the remarkable effect of drawing readers deeply into the story. A fascinating, thought-provoking interplay of various industries and quasifuturistic technologies creates a multidimensional reading experience. The book also has very pleasing aesthetics, with striking illustrations and design elements. Readers looking for a tour of a peculiar future will enjoy falling through Nicolaides’s looking-glass.
Takeaway: This expansive tech-noir novel will reward readers who favor a bird’s-eye view of a dystopian setting and the variety of ordinary lives within it.
Great for fans of Charlie Jane Anders’s The City in the Middle of the Night, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: B
An exciting and intriguing debut novel that focuses on a virus that is quickly turning the world into chaos.