Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti

A review by Nalini Haynes

Scam, aka Ethan, is in trouble. His superpower, a selfish and short-sighted voice with supernatural knowledge, goes rogue. Ethan never knows what ‘the voice’ will say or even what it means and yet he lets it loose on the world. This time all he needs is a ride home after deciding his date — who likes art house movies — is not worth the effort. What he gets instead is a drug dealer with a bag full of cash and a shoot out at a secluded house, which is only the beginning of his problems.

Kelsie loves crowds. She’s an extrovert who lives for nightclubbing; bouncers let her in because she makes sure everyone has a good time. Riding the waves of the crowd and manipulating the crowd are her superpowers. Her dad is a small-time crook who can’t do anything right, including rob a bank. Kelsie sets out to rescue him, meeting Ethan along the way. Ethan’s crush is instant and overpowering but the voice complicates things. And nearly gets them killed.

Ethan’s former friends call themselves Zeroes because they were all born in the year 2000 and they all have superpowers. They used to train, going on ‘missions’ set up by Nate, aka Bellwether, whom they call Glorious Leader. Because why call someone something short when you can call them something longer? Also, no Aussie kid would ever call someone something like that unless it was derogatory. Betcha ‘Glorious Leader’ came from Scott Westerfeld because NOT AUSTRALIAN.

Ethan and Kelsie inadvertently set things in motion for the 6 Zeroes: the others being Chizara (aka Crash because she can crash anything with microchips and fuses), Thibault (aka Anon for Anonymous because everyone forgets he’s there) and Riley (aka Flicker because she’s blind and uses other people’s eyes to see).

A rip-roaring plot and character conflict obscure problems with character development and over-used tropes. As Zeroes is YA with characters aged 17, this probably isn’t a concern for the target market. I found the backstory distracting, feeling like I’d missed a previous book but, by the end, the backstory is fully revealed and pretty much resolved. The ‘splodey plot ‘splodes so everyone should be happy.

Review ends, some extrapolation of my concerns follows.

I’m not going to deconstruct Flicker as much as I’d like here — she has both good and poorly-executed features — I’ll save that for my PhD. However, I’ve thrown some chum in the waters so I will, very briefly, outline some of my concerns to satisfy the circling sharks.

Flicker was born blind except she isn’t: she can see through other people’s eyes. The faking-a-disability trope is extremely offensive and overused. Flicker does genuinely have a disability but she’s hiding her ability, which is nearly as bad. I’d like to burn all stories with this trope in the fire of a thousand suns. Seriously. Just a couple of weeks ago a complete stranger yelled at me, haranguing me for allegedly faking my vision impairment as I walked from the train station to school. This isn’t the first time I’ve been harassed in the street either. I loathe this trope so. very. much.

The magical disabled person trope is also common; I personally don’t have an issue with this trope in theory because I’ve grown up with fantasy stories but the magical element overriding the disability? Burn, baby, burn.

While Flicker’s twin was learning to read, Flicker was learning Braille. Since gaining her magical power that means she’s not really blind [grits teeth], Flicker has stopped reading Braille. And has magically learnt to read, fluently, through other people’s eyes. Unpick that.

Comments about technology abound. Zeroes is set about 2017 (the Zeroes were born in 2000 and are 17), so technology will have advanced by then. However, refusing to read braille severely limits Flicker. She can’t read aloud in class, for example; she relies on other people’s eyes or audio-technology. Text-to-speech assistive technology is worse than a mediocre audiobook. Much, much worse. Does she go to a mainstream school or a school for the blind? How does she function, remembering that SHE’S KEEPING HER ABILITY TO SEE A SECRET. I have issues with Daredevil (Marvel TV series) but at least that dude is pretty consistent and he reads using braille.

(Ok, I’ve never learnt braille: mum refused to let me when I was little because of the cost and hassle. Her plan was that I’d learn it at my own expense and hassle when I could no longer read at all. However, I’m not totally blind, I’m only vision impaired. I have 48 years experience as a vision impaired person, and my eyesight is getting worse as I get older. Flicker has my hackles up.)

When Flicker is abandoned in an isolated industrial estate, she magically manages to walk back to civilization, no worries. I want to take these three nondisabled authors, reduce their vision to my level (I’ll be fair, I won’t blindfold them completely like Flicker) and dump them in the middle of an unfamiliar industrial estate, telling them to find their way home without assistance. Remember, this was a pretty isolated area so people aren’t going to be strolling along, lending Flicker their eyes.

I’d also make the authors walk through the city streets of Melbourne during peak hour traffic, which wouldn’t be nearly as bad as the major fireworks event described in Zeroes.

Some awesomeness abounds: Flicker is attracted to Anon, the ‘invisible’ guy, possibly because they’re both ‘invisible’ in some way. There is one line, a total throwaway that isn’t followed up on, saying that once Flicker gets her cane out, she’ll become invisible to the police. I have the feeling that the authors don’t understand how a disability like vision impairment makes someone invisible all the time.

I feel ambivalent about Flicker. I doubt the authors researched blindness to make her a believable character or had vision-impaired beta readers, which leads me to wonder if the colored characters are white people with a coat of paint. Nate — a rich kid of color — was never pulled over by the police for driving an expensive car, nor was he bailed up with accusations of shoplifting because he had expensive toys (eg phones).

On the one hand: yay, disability and people of color. On the other hand, I am not convinced.

Zeroes will be a beloved novel for many people, white non-disabled privileged people and the disadvantaged other. However, there will be some who feel they’ve been misrepresented and their culture, their lives, have been misappropriated. I’m on the fence. Yay that the crip isn’t evil or a comic side-kick but… [shrug] (Note: if you don’t have a disability, NEVER use the term ‘crip’. It’s like calling a Chinese person a ‘chink’ or writing Vox Day’s post about NK Jemisin.)

ISBN: 9781925266955
Format: paperback, 496 pages
Publishers: Allen & Unwin, Simon & Schuster

Zeroes