Day Zero is the new novel from C. Robert Cargill and the prequel to his 2017 book, Sea Of Rust.
I throughly enjoyed that story when I read it upon release so I had this one pre-ordered in anticipation.
While this new novel is a prequel, it’s set in a different part of the United States and the focus is on entirely new characters meaning it can easily be read as a standalone. The only benefit of having read Sea Of Rust is a deeper understanding of some of the world building aspects that are mentioned occasionally. It’s all very tangential though and not required to enjoy Day Zero to its fullest.
Set in the not too distant future megapolis of Austintonio, Texas, Day Zero is a story of a boy and his protector following the classic model of Lone Wolf & Cub, Road To Perdition and The Mandalorian. The hook of this particular version of the tale is that it takes place during the rise of the robot revolution and genocide of humanity at the hands of the the very machines we built to aid us.
Ezra is a fairly typical eight year old; the only child of two wealthy and intelligent parents who felt like genuine people written for a modern audience. They each have defined and unique personalities and quirks and are well aware that they are not perfect, but their love and devotion for their son is never questionable. The primary care-giver for Ezra though is his top of the line nanny bot, a four foot tall, anthropomorphic tiger named Pounce. Picture any Calvin & Hobbs comic strip and you should have an image of Ezra and Pounce.
The nanny bot is not just there to pick up Ezra from school, prepare meals and tuck him in at night though, Pounce is Ezra’s best friend and confidant. The love each has for the other is expressed openly and would be so wholesome if we weren’t keenly aware that this love is likely exactly what Pounce is programmed to feel.
There’s a different feeling when you see the love of a dog and a child because we understand that love has been built organically and is a feeling that can grow or wither with circumstance. When that dog is suddenly a four foot tiger with articulated hands and perfect recollection of every waking moment it feels healthy to have a level of skepticism.
The existential crisis of consciousness felt by Pounce as the story progresses is a key theme throughout the book; what is free will? Is he acting of his own accord because he loves Ezra or is it just his programming?
More than any book I have read recently Day Zero feels cinematic to me. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise coming from Cargill though; I first became aware of his work as a film critic before he started writing movies of his own including Dr. Strange for Marvel Studios. I knew he had written short stories but Sea Of Rust was the first novel of his I read and that too had a cinematic feel to it.
The plot follows a typical act structure and moves at such a pace that I found myself always eager to read the next chapter, especially as the proceeding one often ended of a cliffhanger.
The primary antagonist throughout much of the book, another robot familiar to both Ezra and Pounce, has a malice to her and the parallels to the T-800 in The Terminator are very strong. As the story progresses and the scope of what is happening grows there is a larger, more impersonal threat too. Something about the facelessness of that terror is scarier than the one to one conflict with a blood thirsty killing machine, though I may be bringing a bias from having read Sea Of Rust to that opinion.
The high octane action beats are written with such a knowledge of visual storytelling they they leapt off the page for me and I could see the choreography of each gun fight, car chase or brawl perfectly. This was paired nicely with the more intimate and often heart wrenching scenes between Ezra and Pounce as they are both trying to make sense of and move forward in the world that is changing rapidly before their eyes and optical inputs.
Day Zero has an easier time of building its world than its predecessor did. Set thirty years earlier, this isn’t a war ravaged world completely devoid of humans and so the parallels to the America of today can be more direct. There are right wing ‘red hats’ who are frequently vandalising and violently protesting against robots, even before the uprising begins. It’s implied that the inhumanity shown by these sorts are what lead many robots to turn violent against their former masters once that metaphorical chain is broken. It is following a heinous attack on robots simply seeking equality by religious fundamentalists clearly based on the Westborough Baptist Church that sparks the robot uprising in the first place.
By the time Pounce needs to take Ezra and try to protect him we have already been introduced to many different kinds of robots; from domestics to fashionables, caregivers and labourbots. We understand the functions they have served in every day life and to what level of danger each poses if they have chosen to turn against humanity.
That choice is prevalent over the course of the story. Why do we make the choices we do? What is it that’s preventing us from simply acting on impulse? Is the ability to chose a human attribute or something an A.I. can possess also and what truly is the difference between programming and the unconscious love and need to protect that most parents and care givers feel?
For me, this is the primary drive of the novel. We’re not beaten over the head with it, but it is not so buried in subtext that you’re left scratching your head at the end of the story.
I found Day Zero to be a much more intimate and personable story to Sea Of Rust and even with a completely satisfying conclusion it left me wanting more. To be able to fall in love with a character and think that, were I in this situation I would put my complete trust in a character like Pounce is great, especially when you’re immediately reminded that he is essentially a giant stuffed tiger.
I would be very happy to read another story set in this world that Cargill has created and wouldn’t be at all surprised if one or both of these novels is adapted for the big or small screen in the future.
Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill is available now wherever books are sold and is the perfect holiday read, even if you aren’t going further than your garden or the closest park.