Disclaimer first: I was a Patreon contributor to John Birmingham, for the effort that ended in Zero Day Code. For my hard earned, I got access to each chapter as it was written, and even had one of the book’s characters named after me. I like John Birmingham’s work, I like it a lot, but have never met him. If I thought his creation sucked, I’d say so as he’s never going to have time to mentor a try-hard like me, even if I blew wind up his arse for a solid year or two. That’s my way of saying this is a straight down the line review — at least until JB invites me for a beer, then all bets are off on the attempt at impartiality.
Dystopian novels are arguably the most overdone genre in fiction. I love them, but even I’m tending to look for something a little cheerier given our current reality is looking more and more like an Ebola epidemic reality show shot on location in a real version of The Walking Dead. That said, when John Birmingham started pimping his Patreon effort for Zero Day Code, I took a closer look. What hooked me was Birmingham’s unashamed nod to Stephen King’s The Stand, one of the best dystopian novels of all time — he said he wanted to have his own attempt at something epic and end-of-the-world. And for a measly ten bucks, I could jump on the bus as it pulled out and watch the creation of the whole thing from go to whoa. I handed over my credit card details and waited for the frequent updates. Chapters were released at a decent rate, and I kept up with the chapters for a short while, until other things got in the way. After the first half dozen chapters I gave up, saving each new one as it came in, but didn’t get around to reading them.
A handful of months later, the book was finished and it was announced that its debut would be in audio book form on Audible (no I don’t get paid for that link). This was my chance to catch up. Although disappointed I couldn’t launch straight into the polished final product as a written book, I signed up for my free Audible trial and downloaded Zero Day Code. All 12 hours and 32 minutes of it. It was the first audio book I’d purchased since attempting to listen to Tim Winton’s Dirt Music more than a decade ago. I never finished that one (sorry Tim), but Zero Day Code is a different story. Tim Winton would certainly agree with that one.
Did I spend my money on Patreon wisely? I believe so — even if I hadn’t gotten to hang out in the sausage factory throughout its creation. Zero Day Code sees the world ends in style, we get to know and love/hate some well fleshed out characters and we get a box seat for what appears to be a long term disintegration and transition to… some other form of society that will become more evident in subsequent books. The world of Zero Day Code is undoubtedly something designed for multiple volumes, and for that I am glad.
Birmingham has hit a very sweet spot, between the incredibly descriptive Emberverse series from S.M. Stirling and The Stand, which is starting to show its age a little. Zero Day Code shows the benefit of Stirling-like research, in a punchy, contemporary package with the worldwide scope that Stephen King achieved, plus some. Narrator Rupert Degas does a superb job covering both genders and multiple cultures — I bet his dinner party anecdotes kick arse. The story achieves the delicate balance of exploring new ideas whilst grounding it firmly in modern times. There’s many a subtle poke at recent events and some much less subtle prods at the substantial changes underway in the international order. Its pacing is excellent but the story always feels substantial. There’s a good smattering of humour and Birmingham’s specialty of word mashups: where else could you get a sentence that features the phrase “shame-wanking over griefporn”? These flippancies are blended in effectively, adding colour without calling too much attention to themselves. They also accentuate how much changes for each characters when the shit really hits the fan. Suddenly, internet-based word gymnastics seem a little pointless when the whole system dies.
Zero Day Code is a great listen that is more than worth 12 hours of your time. A written word version is at least 18 months off, so if like me you don’t usually do the audio book thing, this might be the time to take the plunge. In the meantime, I’m off to find out what griefporn is, before stocking up on a shitload of canned goods.