Publisher: Harper/Macmillan (Ebook – 11 April 2023)
Length: 298 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Acclaimed screenwriter and author Anthony McCarten presents a compelling and intense techno-thriller that shows readers the terrifying future of surveillance technology in the intriguing read, Going Zero.
It is a time of great expansion in the world’s spy technology as every country works to increase their internal and external surveillance capability. To keep up with their rivals, the CIA have been convinced to partner with billionaire Silicon Valley tycoon Cy Baxter to create the ultimate surveillance program. Known as FUSION, the new system will allow the government, through Baxter’s company, to find anyone in the country, no matter how hard they hide.
But before FUSION can officially go online and Baxter’s company can be awarded its massive, multi-billion-dollar contract, Baxter needs to prove that the system can deliver everything he promises. To that end, the ultimate test is proposed, pitting 10 random Americans against the new technology. At an appointed hour, all 10 participants will need to “Go Zero”, going completely off the grid and leaving their lives, families, and homes behind to hide as best they can. If they can elude the company’s technology and capture teams for 30 days, then they receive $3 million in prize money.
As the participants each choose their own unique ways of vanishing off the face of the Earth, one stands out amongst the security experts, tech geniuses and law enforcement professions that have been recruited. Boston librarian Kaitlyn Day was chosen to be an easy target, an everyday woman who could test the most basic bounds of the program. However, she swiftly shows that she is far more skilled and versed in counter surveillance tactics than anyone expects. As the test continues, Kaitlyn manages to counteract every trick FUSION has up its sleeve, and soon Baxter grows desperate trying to find her. But as the test nears its end, it becomes clear that there is far more to Kaitlyn than meets the eye, especially as she has a very personal reason for playing this elaborate game.
This was an awesome and impressive novel from McCarten, who presents the reader with a fun scenario guaranteed to grab their attention. Going Zero is an awesome book that I really got drawn into thanks to its compelling narrative and fast-paced style. I actually managed to read this entire book in a day, as I got quite hooked on the story and just kept going, trying to see how everything ended and I really was not disappointed with how it turned out.
Going Zero’s story itself is great, as it plays out like a giant, technological game of cat and mouse throughout the United States. It reminded me a lot of the reality show, Hunted, on steroids, with the facilitators, the CIA and Cy Baxter’s team, having access to every single surveillance feed and scrap of digital information they need to catch the players. The first half of the book is primarily focused on this hunt, with most of the attention on both Kaitlyn Day and Baxter’s team as they hunt for her. The author makes great use of short, sharp chapters to move the story along at a very quick pace, which also limits the reader’s desire to stop reading, as the end of the next chapter is always in sight. McCarten sets the entire scenario up extremely well, and you are soon dragged into the intriguing middle of this over-the-top fugitive situation. It is incredibly fun seeing Kaitlyn’s initial exploits, as well as the overarching reach of Baxter, whose insane control room put me in mind of the game masters in The Hunger Games film. These two intriguing primary perspectives are often interspersed with quick interludes that show the other nine participants slowly getting hunted down by Baxter’s capture teams. Each of their methods of hiding is unique to them and seeing them getting effortlessly capture serves as a rather compelling counterpoint to Kaitlyn’s own endeavours to avoid detection. I really got caught up in this hunt scenario, which dominates the first half of the novel, mainly because it was so damn fun, intriguing, and a little terrifying to see the FUSION system in action. While I would have been happy enough to read a lot more of this, McCarten introduces a rather good twist about halfway through that throws everything on its head.
Now, while the inclusion of a twist wasn’t too surprising, especially as the plot had been hinting like crazy that something was suspicious about the protagonist, the full extent of it is pretty damn epic, especially as it makes you rethink everything that occurred in the first half of the book. McCarten had done a really good job of inserting subtle hints and clues into the preceding story, and the way they were dragged together was really clever. This major twist changes the entire story around and moves it from a mostly harmless story about advanced hide and seek to an intense and personal thriller with some major national security ramifications. The second half of the book goes into overdrive, especially as, after the twist, you are particularly attached to the protagonist and her potential victory, while the antagonist becomes easier to root against. There is conspiracy, espionage and deeply personal attacks against the various characters, as everyone is suddenly trying to survive the changes that the protagonist brought on. I deeply enjoyed where the story went at this point, and the resulting exciting scenes, which also included some more twists, continue to drag you in and ensure that that stick along for the ride. The author provides a great, if highly cynical, ending for this entire narrative, and you come away feel satisfied, especially as it leaves the reader wanting more. An overall impressive and addictive story that I had such a great time getting through.
Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of Going Zero was McCarten’s frank and often terrifying look at the state of surveillance technology in the world today. The hunt for the 10 participants requires FUSION team to employ a ton of intriguing methods to find their prey, with the hunters mapping out their targets’ habits, history, and personal connections to find where they will likely go and who they will try to interact with. Some crazy technology and methods are featured throughout the book and McCarten combines some clear research with some more imaginative approaches to reveal how the hunters were able to find the contestants. While some of the elements were obviously enhanced for narrative purposes, the story does feature quite a few more realistic methods that honestly had me thinking about how much information I have on the grid (they’d catch me in less than 10 minutes). This intriguing focus on how humans have become used to sharing their information and leaving themselves upon to tracking and exploitation becomes a key part of the plot as certain characters start to misuse this information for their own good. McCarten also introduces a great counterpoint to this through Kaitlyn’s perspective, as her insights into the surveillance world provide some interesting contrast, especially when she starts turning the tables on the hunters and their technology. The loss of privacy and anonymity ended up being a pretty big theme for this novel, and I think readers will come out with their eyes opened about just how easy it may be for governments or companies to track where you are or what you are doing (or thinking) in the future.
I really liked the fun blend of characters that McCarten featured throughout Going Zero, especially as thanks to the focus on privacy loss and personal investigation, you soon learn a lot about them. The fun, if brief, snapshots into the nine other participants in the beta test added some great colour to the story, especially as McCarten had to quickly and comprehensively showcase who they were and how they think in order to show how FUSION caught them. Cy Baxter, the brains behind FUSION, was a great figure within the story as well, as he ticked all the boxes of an egotistical billionaire and tech genius. While he was initially shown to be an ambitious and eccentric figure who was attempting to introduce the system for the right reasons, the moment he gets some opposition you begin to see the real Cy Baxter under the surface, and it is not pretty. Thanks to his ego and his own belief in his intelligence, Baxter keeps going further and further down the dark path to achieve his goals, and by the end of the book he proves to quite an effective and highly unlikable antagonist (with some great similarities to a certain real-life tech billionaire twit).
However, most of the best character work is reserved for main protagonist Kaitlyn Day, who had quite a fascinating arc throughout the book. I loved the way that McCarten initially built her up as a typical librarian and a potential amateur without any real chance of succeeding. However, it soon becomes clear that there is far more to Kaitlyn, especially as some of her earliest moves prove to be so infuriating to Baxter and the FUSION team. McCarten drops some excellent hints throughout her storyline about her past which provide some potential clues about what is about to happen with her character, especially when combined with the research the antagonists do on her. I really cannot emphasise how well McCarten set up the twist around Kaitlyn, and the full details of her life and motivations only further increase how much you start rooting for her. There is some noticeable but relatable character change that occurs after the twist is revealed, and it was interesting to see how serious she was and how she managed to manipulate the system. These characters, and more, helped to turn Going Zero into quite the excellent read, and I loved some of the intriguing figures that emerged.
Going Zero was an exceptional and captivating read that had me hooked from the very start. Anthony McCarten’s unique scenario led to an exciting and highly fun story that proved near impossible to put down. I powered through Going Zero in no time at all and this was one of the more entertaining books of 2023 for me so far. An excellent and highly enjoyable read that has potential as a film, Going Zero comes highly recommended and is definitely worth checking out.