Having a mercenary who loses all memory of his kills with each mission is a great reset button while leaving muscle memory still retaining all it needs to know. As a plot device, it is pretty convenient despite being a crux for simple black ops tenacity and a lack of morality. In “Zero World” [Jason M. Hough/Del Rey/592pgs] our mercenary is named Caswell. Of Korean descent, he is world traveled and usually takes adventure vacations after his assignments to keep fit. The only way he knows how many people he killed on his recent missions is the amount of beer bottles that are arranged a certain way in his fridge after his reset. At a certain point in his mission, a chip in his brain wipes his short term memory. The mission this book follows, in detail over its long progression, is a trip up to a derelict space station to retrieve a woman who has stolen an important piece of knowledge. She supposedly killed some of the crew and the rescue mission meets with the edge of his blade. His thought is that they [the crew] are means to an end and he won’t remember murdering them anyway. What permeates is that once he finds out that she left, his handler gives him a new directive that sends him to a different world; this time it is through a wormhole to a planet that looks almost exactly like Earth with small changes and different social customs based on a series of heavy crater impacts hundreds of years before. This makes a lot of its surface unlivable. He lands with one mission: to find this woman and see if she has affected change on this planet that seems a carbon copy of Earth. The gist that continues is that he was in fact, in certain ways, duped. This is made clear by his interactions by a local spy agent Melni who is making her way against the North in what is an almost Civil War structure but created in the notion of these craters and not by any social stigma. Each territory’s geography allowed their society’s to develop differently. After missing the opportunity to kill his target, Caswell must go on the run all the while realizing that Melni is his only key to survival. Like any good thieves or enemies of the state on the lam, they are attracted to each other which is what in many ways buoys the story.
The book continues in multiple parts continuing to Melni’s original home where the introduction of this strange man leads to nearly a political witch trial. After they escape the progression becomes slightly weirder as they encounter an entity called The Warden who begins speaking within the structure of multiverses. This leads to a story about a higher race of beings that attempts to control the outcomes of thousands of worlds, all variations on Earth, providing that civilization as only one constant of life on multiple planes. Ultimately Caswell figures out a way to get home on his original target’s craft but after reaching an outlaw town, his memory wipe program is activated and he must start from scratch again. Melni has to direct him and gain his trust quickly to attain and protect his target. Ultimately they escape but end up hurtling in the void with one possibility and thousands of versions of the same world. The plot is at simplest convoluted but ultimately engaging despite its length because the characters are very specific and concrete yet they are able to morph. Despite minor crises of identity, their intentions are very clear and the decisions in the moment specific.
Also included is the first couple parts of the author’s next adventure called “Dire Earth” which follows a set of people who are immune to a virus brought down on a space elevator. There are specific allusions to ‘The Walking Dead” as well as to “I Am Legend” in terms of the notion of mortality and individualism which were also present in the previous “Zero World”. The conflict of “Dire Earth” points to an interesting ” Suicide Squad” group of misfits ready to save the world but at their own pace.
Both adventures have their strengths and abilities to engage the reader allowing for a swift and engaging read despite a little bit of overarching detail.