This is an ambitious first novel, one which creates a sprawling and credible near-future, a tense and turbulent political situation, and then throws a rogue crew of space pirates into the mix. We’re a long way from old-school ‘hard’ sci-fi which tried as hard to be technically accurate as it did to tell a good story. Nope, think instead of George Lucas’ intention to put cowboys and indians in space – an aim which became the genre-defining institution that is Star Wars and which (arguably…) spawned the later Star Trek series, Stargate, Firefly, Farscape and all. Zero certainly aims high.
The hero, Hugo Kaleb, is a Service stalwart who is publically disgraced for disobeying orders. He’s cashiered and shunned – even by his own parents – and in secret takes charge of the Zero, a black-op privateer ship run in secret as a deniable asset of the Service. So Hugo has to go from being the straight-laced Mr Career Space Pilot to the raggedy-ass captain of an unruly crew in constantly risky situations. Cue conflict between him and his first officer, general distrust from the space-hardened pirates, and a series of secret missions which go horribly wrong…
Although Zero is set in space and in the future, it’s not really space-opera as such. This isn’t about galaxy-spanning travel: it’s about human interactions set against the backdrop of a fragmenting social structure. This isn’t the gleaming world of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek where everything is crisp and white and perfectly functional. Instead it’s dark, grubby and corrupt: people scratch out miserable existences on remote way stations and shabby lunar colonies. Author JR Collyer has cleverly created an environment which is entirely her own – but also feels extremely familiar, allowing the reader to follow the plot at a ripping pace without getting bogged down in endless techobabble.
Collyer also establishes several fascinating characters and then sets them up against each other. Clean-cut Hugo was a wee bit square-jawed for my tastes but his pirate counterpart, Ezekiel Webb was instantly more intriguing: all rough edges, bad attitude and a smart mouth. As the story progresses, he was definitely the guy I wanted to spend more time with. Not all of the characters are quite so well realised, however, and a couple of them could’ve been wearing red shirts and a label which said ‘sacrificial security personnel.’ In the end, some fatalities were almost reported in passing, and lacked any kind of emotional impact as a result.
Also, for my personal tastes, there’s a wee bit too much running and shouting and shooting in the several set-piece action sequences. I know I’m probably twice the age of the average Zero reader which might have something to do with my ennui, but it felt kinda repetitive after a while. The narrative really came alive for me not in the extended descriptions of running down corridors and being blown halfway to bits, but in the tense interplay between the two lead characters. Also, the segments when the author extended her imagination beyond the standard confines of action-adventure and really speculated on what might come to be – future tech and solar-system politics – were genuinely exciting.
Then there’s one gob-smacking I DON’T BELIEVE IT moment (which I can’t reveal cos it’d spoil too much) where I literally squealed while reading. And I’m old. And I really have read it all before. It takes a lot to make me squeal.
Overall, then, Zero is an extremely entertaining read. It doesn’t bend any boundaries by extrapolating new technologies, nor does it challenge the reader’s comprehension with experimental styles. (For those, you should probably try Alastair Reynolds’ stunning Revelation Space series and the testosterone-fuelled incandescence of Takeshi Kovaks from Richard Morgan). I hope that in future Collyer steers her space series more towards the speculative and fantastic aspects of the genre and spends a bit less time choreographing fist fights. It’s definitely a delight to find a talented new author who’s obviously enthused about the genre and has plans to explore it.
More spaceships, please. More space battles, please. And some aliens. Can we have aliens next time around?
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Zero by JS Collyer is published by Dagda and is available as an ebook or paperback