For one minute Hugo wondered what would happen if he told the colonel to shove it. Shove it all. Shove the Zero and shove the Service. But the moment and the feeling passed, leaving in its wake a flush of shame.
My first problem with Zero: An Orbit Novel was that I didn’t know why indeed Hugo, the protagonist, didn’t “shove it”.
Please, understand. It’s not that my ideal protagonist is a quitter. Far from it. But if the author only offers (de)motivators that point in one direction, I’ll expect the character to go that way. And if he doesn’t, then I’ll expect to discover what truly drives him, even if it’s presented in the most implicit way.
The first chapters are little more than a litany of reasons for him to quit. Hugo disobeys an Analyst and is dishonorably dismissed from “the Service”. He resents that because he considers that he did the right thing and furthermore the order did not come from his commanding officer but an “Analyst”, whatever that is.
Hugo, however, is secretly assigned to a privateer ship, the eponymous Zero. He doesn’t like that either. He tries to talk to his superiors but they won’t listen. He doesn’t like the laid-back attitude of privateers in general or this crew in particular. And to make matters worse, his first officer is permanently disrespectful: regularly addresses him in the imperative and only calls him ‘sir’ when ordered to.
After several chapters, Hugo is still having problems adjusting. Actually, we’re given no reason to think that he wants to adjust at all:
Hugo accompanied the team on the first few ventures into the Sunside colonies, but quickly learnt he was still a long way off getting his head around the subtleties of underworld wrangling. He didn’t let himself ponder too long on whether this was because he was slow to learn or just didn’t want to.
Didn’t want to learn?! And that is the captain of the ship! A ship that is sent into very dangerous missions, but he’s not adapting and he doesn’t care.
In the 7th chapter (!) a crewmate tells him: “I know this is all new but try to keep up.” They even have to tell him that he is attracting unwanted attention with his regimented gait.
So we’re given all the reasons in the world to expect him to quit. Well, he doesn’t. We can assume that this is just military gung-ho. That would be very realistic, I’ll admit. But then he should at the very least, try to learn. And quick! We don’t see him wanting to learn, or wanting anything specific, actually (until he gets his ass kicked in a mission that everybody told him would go awfully wrong). He’s just there, feeling out of place.
And he doesn’t storm into the Zero to instill discipline either, in the manner Gregory Peck did in Twelve O’Clock High. Granted, his unwanted crew have no lost discipline to regain, no oath to remember. But he should either become one of them, teach them his ways, or learn enough to find common ground.
The dynamic between the military captain and the unruly crew is not like a buddy cop movie either because, again, the two parties have no sense of belonging to the same institution or even community. He is from Earth, they are from the Moon, which was defeated 20 years ago when fought in vain for its independence.
Wait a minute. What kind of idiot sets up a secret operation where the crew and their captain have no commonalities in background, training, priorities, knowledge of the terrain, etc…? This is an excellent setting for
Indeed quite early, Hugo’s disobedient first officer admits that the captains of the Zero tend to die soon. You know, I don’t love it when a plan doesn’t come together… repeatedly! And yet the system remains unchanged. Why doesn’t HQ do anything about this? Hugo doesn’t like it, why does he tolerate it? Webb certainly doesn’t like it. Why does he put up with that? Unclear, but a third character opines that:
“There’s no medals, no credit. No thanks. But it’s dark out there. And messy. We need someone to lead us, even if it means dragging us onto the right course by our teeth. Without that… we’re just another rudderless pirate ship, scraping an existence off the underside of humanity.”
If so, why is it that they show no sign of ever having tried to adapt to the Service’s ways?
Around the book’s equator things start to change. But the book is about 140,000 words and by that time my interest had dropped well below zero, pun intended.
RATING: 1 / 10