“Flimsy, awkward and unconvincing” – Camp Zero by Michelle Min Sterling

IMG_2023-3-24-202500It’s the late twenty-first century and climate catastrophe has well and truly hit the United States. Oil has been outlawed and the rich of Boston have retreated to the exclusive and off-grid Floating City, a tech-utopian’s fantasy of the high-life, while everyone else is floundering in burned and flood-ravaged communities, desperate to find a way to survive, and hooked on their ever-present digital ‘feeds’, powered by embedded chips called Flicks. One of these regular folk, a woman code-named Rose, works as an escort in the Floating City, where her main client, Damien, an unsubtle stand-in for Mark Zuckerberg, sends her undercover to Dominion Lake in the far North (aka Canada) to spy on the progress being made on his new pet project: a vast mining enterprise that will allow him to roll out the next generation of Flicks (an equally unsubtle Metaverse cypher) and is breaking ground under the guise of a utopian community and university campus designed by Meyer, an idealistic visionary architect. Rose’s reward will be safety and security in the Floating City for her immigrant mother.

Meanwhile, Grant is the only son of one of society’s founding billionaires, heir to power and fortune, raised in the Floating City. But after the death of his girlfriend, Grant has become disillusioned with corruption and environmental destruction and his privileged life, and he wants out: after his college  graduation he runs away to takes a teaching job up in Dominion Lake, on Meyer’s as-yet-unbuilt campus, where he meets the Blooms: the sex workers there to provide for the project managements’ needs. Rose – are you keeping up? – is one of these, working undercover as one of the Blooms. Finally, a parallel narrative introduces us to a group of female army-trained specialists who were running a scientific facility called White Alice north of Dominion Lake, monitoring climate change, a couple of decades prior to Rose and Grant’s respective ventures north, and who began to suspect their project wasn’t quite what they were led to believe. As the three narratives converge, and we learn the links between White Alice and the Blooms and Damien’s project, everyone’s plans begin to unravel.

That’s a lengthy explanation, yes. But it’s a fairly convoluted plot – though it really shouldn’t be. The premise is great: the consequences of imperialism and class and extraction and inaction, the arrogance and naivety of tech-idealists, the gendered nature of power, the effect of isolation on the human mind. This is good stuff! But the way it’s all strung together is flimsy, awkward and unconvincing, lending itself to a reading experience akin to yelling at the TV. For example, how come Damien, who already had a man embedded in the Dominion Camp, needed Rose there at all? Would anything significant have been lost to the plot had the entire character of Grant just been dropped? I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but why didn’t Jane, who seemed usefully clear-headed, just follow Grant to the roof? When the White Alice crew need credit cards to buy oil but they only have cash, how come they go to great lengths to…steal more cash? How come, when one of them poses as an escort to charge her john a load of money to meet their needs and he willingly agrees to the extortionate fee, they then drag him at gunpoint to the ATM? There’s a scene in the abandoned mall where the Blooms live, in which they all raid a long-shuttered fast fashion outlet and get new clothes, but when Rose wonders why this specific shop hasn’t been looted like everywhere else, the only answer is a vague ‘somehow this one must have been missed out’. The actual reason, of course, is that the novel needs the characters in the shop so that they can see the old White Alice graffiti tag in the changing room, thus paralleling the scene in which we see that same tag first scrawled – but there’s no real narrative advantage in that tag having been found at all. More: everybody’s an expert, delighted to share their expertise Bond Villain-style. Damien monologues his evil heart out to Rose; Meyer does the same. (How did these people become top of their fields?) When the White Alice meteorologist finds a reference to absolute zero, the narrator explains her excitement: ‘[She] knew only another member of her profession would use such a term.’ Or, you know, anybody who’s studied high school science. This is Dan Brown level info-dumping – exposition taken to levels as extreme as the novel’s weather.

The characters too, are flimsy: Grant is defined by defiance and grief, and Rose by injustice and love for her mother, but neither comes particularly alive beyond this, and the other women are reduced to professional functions (the White Alice crew) or physical attributes (the Blooms). Only a few are named (Grant, Aurora and, eventually, Rose). In a novel that’s concerned with the technologisation and alienation of society and the objectification of women, it’s interesting that even the female characters forging their own independent utopia remain in the narrative a rather undifferentiated mass. The dialogue doesn’t help: it’s either stiff and didactic or predictably ‘coarse’ in the case of the male camp workers (the Diggers, the Foreman).

So what’s good? Again, the premise is great. It’s refreshing to see a writer take a direct swing at rare mineral mining rather than limiting their fury at extractive capitalism to oil; Sterling’s vision of the Flicks doesn’t stretch credulity at all, which is horribly depressing; the Floating City concept itself is likewise convincing (I could see it as a coda to one of Mark O’Connell’s books). Her acknowledgement of the land rights of Indigenous people, too, is an important inclusion, though it’s a shame none of those people make an appearance in the novel itself. A reader less bothered by heavy exposition than me will probably sail through this: the multitude of plots may be knotty, but it also provides plenty of hooks upon which to snag one’s attention.

Any Cop?: Not for me, though die-hard speculative fans will doubtless find enjoyment here.

Valerie O’Riordan


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