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ZERO WORLD by Jason M. Hough is a Fun and Entertaining Sci-Fi Thriller

REVIEW SUMMARY: A strong thriller that overcomes the mostly underutilized SF underpinnings of the premise

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Peter Caswell, assassin and agent for a mysterious boss, finds his latest mission brings him uncomfortably face to face with questions about reality, his own nature, and his purpose as he visits another world

PROS: Well constructed action sequences; pulse pounding excitement; excellent main character
CONS: Book doesn’t quite live up to SF aspects of its premise; secondary world is not entirely convincing.
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining book that shows the author has SF and thriller chops.

Assassin and special agent Peter Caswell faces questions of the nature of reality and of his true nature and purpose as he journeys to a parallel Earth in Zero World, from Darwin Elevator series author Jason Hough.

Some decades or a century from now, Peter Caswell works for a mysterious employer and a handler called Monique. Peter has special enhancements that allow him to perform feats well beyond that of a mortal man, and Peter does not remember the dark deeds he commits because Monique uses a trigger to reset his mind and wipe away the memory of his covert operations. Peter’s world is turned upside down, however, when Monique pulls him from going on much needed leave to investigate a derelict spacecraft whose crew has been murdered. In the course of the investigation Peter is lead into a parallel dimension, complete with its own version of Earth, and what Peter believes to be true about reality is in for a shock. Peter only has a few weeks to find the only surviving crew member of that derelict ship before his mind will be wiped of all details of the mission.

The novel is strongest, and the author makes best use of action sequences as character development, and as developing the plot. The second POV character in the novel, Melni, native to the Zero World and an agent herself, is introduced to Peter in an action sequence, getting their professional relationship literally off with a bang. The author makes efforts to develop Melni as a second pillar of the book; however, compared to the intriguing mystery and complexity of Peter, she unfortunately comes off as second banana. I appreciate, however, that the novel does feature a number of strong roles for female characters, even beyond Monique, Peter’s boss, and Melni. Their strengths and weaknesses compliment and contrast nicely with Peter’s, and he even shows a bit of vulnerability during the mission.

Zero World does make some attempts to explore Total Recall’s Kuato’s dictim that a man is defined by his actions, not by his memories, in its exploration of the consequences of an assassin and agent who cannot remember who and what he really does. The inner nature of the real Peter Caswell isn’t as deeply touched on as in, say, a Philip K. Dick novel, but the questions are certainly raised. The nature of reality and the universe, too, are a bit frustratingly underdeveloped except for a key couple of infodumps. I woud have like to have had a little more detail about our original Earth, as well, and not being able to pin down when the novel actually takes place was frustrating.

Duplica is the world that Peter Caswell visits, and its strange parallels to Earth are a continual source of mystery and wonder in the novel. Duplica is less technologically advanced than Peter Caswell’s Earth, with a level of technology and expertise much more in line with contemporary Earth, but only roughly. Even more so than the technology, the sociology and small aspects of the society are distinctly different than our own. We get a view from the inside early on Duplica, as the POV of the novel shifts to Melni without allowing us to see Peter’s first interactions with the alternate Earth. As such, we are plunged mostly into the deep end, following Melni as she goes about her own espionage business and trying to puzzle out the world. While I found the world not always convincing, there are some small bits that definitely mark the world as not as ours at all, and with different cultural cues such as when Melni contemplates a sign entitled “Croag and Daughters” on a business sign for an antique shop, or, say, the decimalization of units of time that holds sway on Duplica. Or the different names given for similar items of technology. Or even greetings. As you might imagine, Peter does trip up on more than a few of the linguistic differences, and as Peter and Melni spend time together, we see Melni picking up expressions from our own world as well.

While the SF base of the novel is not as strong as the thriller and spy elements, the action and espionage are top notch and mostly make up for my perceived deficiencies. James Bond goes to an alien parallel Earth sounds like a facile way to describe the book, and yet it works on that basis. Moonraker, for example, is not a terribly rigorous movie from an SF point of view, and yet from the point of view of a James Bond espionage thriller, it completely works. Thus, similarly, Zero World feels very much like a crossover novel coming from the other side, a techno-spy novel with more than the usual amount of SF elements, rather than a SF novel with espionage elements. I would not be entirely surprised if the novel is ultimately more successful for readers of that space between the genres, and readers of espionage fiction, than within a more core SF community itself. Either way, this is the sort of novel that I, and I expect others, will want to read not when seeking deep philosophical SF, but more as an escapist read. On those terms, Zero World delivers.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!
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