Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld

For someone who typically isn’t that into superhero fiction, I feel like I’ve read a lot of superhero fiction lately. It’s a genre experiencing a lot of different takes right now, a lot of different voices throwing something different into the ring. So I was really interested to see a teen superhero book by Scott Westerfeld, because I’ve loved his books for years and years. And traditionally, teen superhero comics have been the ones I’ve enjoyed the most (Runaways, Ms Marvel, Young Avengers, etc), so this seemed really promising.

There were, indeed, a lot of things I liked about this book. I liked that the characters felt very much like real, actual teens (something Westerfeld has always done well, in my opinion). I liked the different powers that the Zeroes had; they were presented differently than superpowers often are, and I liked the concept of the “curve”, where their powers operate better in groups. I really liked the comparatively small scale of the book – too often, to me, superhero fiction takes on massive, epic, planet-wide scale. Instead, this book focuses on a fairly small group of people and a bank robbery gone wrong, all set over the course of one long weekend. That’s not to say there’s not life-or-death stakes, because there certainly are, but sometimes smaller scope makes the stakes feel more drastic to the reader, in my experience. One death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic, remember?

Over the course of the book, through the switching viewpoint of all the characters, we find out about the Zeroes’ last summer – how they all had their unique powers and thought they were alone, but then found each other, began training, and in one disastrous moment fell apart due to, well, teen angst and hormones and pride and things we’ve all seen before. The group, having mostly not spoken since that day (as some things can never be taken back), reunites to save one of their own after his power gets him into trouble. Throughout this book, it seemed to me that Scam’s power (Scam being his codename) of the golden tongue, the magical voice that can always get him what he wants, really only gets him into trouble. It gets him out of trouble like twice, but it also serves as the catalyst for almost every bad thing that happens in this book. I kind of hated Scam and I also kind of felt bad for him – and then I realized that that is also how the rest of the main characters felt about him.

The other characters and their powers include Crash, who shuts down electrical devices; Flicker, who can see through other people’s eyes (especially helpful, as she is blind herself); Anonymous, who people forget as soon as they stop looking at him; and Bellwether (also known as Glorious Leader) who can manipulate people’s emotions with his incredible charisma and leadership. The sixth Zero is brought into the group over the course of the book – Kelsie, who is given the codename Mob due to her ability to manipulate crowds and tap into crowd energy. I personally think these are all really cool powers, and I’m glad we didn’t see any of the “stereotypical” superpowers – no super strength, no super speed, no flight, no stretching, no laser eyes. Except for Crash, all of these powers are based on the manipulation of people and their energy; except for Scam, all of their powers work better (or only work) in a crowd than one-on-one.

I do sometimes dislike when a book spends an inordinate amount of time showing the downsides of superpowers. Yes, obviously superpowers have downsides, and I don’t think it’s wrong to portray that, but if it goes on too long, it just feels whiny and self-indulgent. Zeroes kept toeing that line for me, and combined with the very nature of teenage levels of emotional intelligence, it got a little grating at times. The only time when it actually got through to me was during the descriptions of Anonymous’ childhood – when he got sick, he was taken into a hospital ward, and his parents forgot him and left him there. The doctors and nurses couldn’t really care for him, because there were so many other people around that he was functionally invisible. So he escaped, and had been living alone, making his way in the world, since the tender age of 12. That was, for obvious reasons, upsetting. On the other hand, Bellwether’s thing about people not trusting him, because they couldn’t be sure if he was manipulating their emotions or not, didn’t really ring true to me (nor did his transparent ambitions towards politics).

I like that, for all that this is a superhero book, there is not a supervillain in sight. Instead, the antagonists are normal people and phenomena – bank robbers and mafiosos, culminating in a climactic building demolition to escape. I think the reason this worked especially well for me is because this book embraced the inherent degree of ineptitude that teen superheroes should have. Not due to any fault of their own, but a younger superhero probably is not going to have the level of skill and practice with their powers, or the more developed rationality or wisdom of an older one. Teens can be more impulsive, or more likely to misunderstand the stakes of a given situation. It’s not a bad thing, and it’s not exclusive to teens – god knows there’s hotheaded adults, naive adults, and inexperienced adults. But it’s certainly very likely to show up in teens, and I think it’s good to show that in fiction for and about teens.

There is a sequel to Zeroes, called Swarm, coming out later this year (I believe this is intended to be a trilogy). I won’t be in a particular rush to run out and get this one immediately, but I probably will read it eventually. This was an enjoyable read, and even though I disliked several of them initially, the characters grew on me enough that I care and wonder about what they’re going to do next.

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