Michelle Min Sterling's brilliantly unsettling debut novel, Camp Zero, is set in mid-21st-century, post-oil North America. Prioritizing perspectives from two all-female communities, it contrasts the heights of opulence and technology with the basic instinct for survival.
Camp Zero is at northern Canada's frontier, where the climate is desirably cool. Dominion Lake boomed in the age of fossil fuels but by 2049--15 years after an oil ban--is a ghost town. Enter the "Blooms," an elite group of sex workers known by floral pseudonyms. They set up in an abandoned mall to service the "Diggers" at the nearby construction site. "Rose," a 25-year-old mixed-race Korean American, moved here from the Floating City, a Boston-area offshore community where the wealthy escape sweltering summers. Her exclusive client there, Damien Mitchell, created the Flick, a news/social media feed and virtual reality device that is implanted behind the ear at birth. He assigns Rose a mission at Camp Zero; if she succeeds, he promises permanent Floating City citizenship for her and her mother.
Next to arrive at the camp is Grant Grimley, who was recruited to teach English at the planned Dominion College. An Ivy League graduate wounded by the end of a relationship, he's turned his back on his wealthy family and hopes to reinvent himself and make a difference. Alternating with these two third-person perspectives are sections in the first-person plural, voiced by the all-female staff of White Alice, a former Cold War radar station that now houses polar climate research.
How these three strands will connect is a mystery sustained through much of the book. Characters go by multiple names and harbor ulterior motives; scenes echo each other as disparate subplots meet in unexpected ways. The background--economic collapse, conflicts over land rights and resources, people migrating to avoid increasingly inhospitable climates--is all too plausible. Sterling also takes to its logical extreme the state of being constantly online, with the Flick resembling a warning about concomitant data harvesting and human memory loss. What people will risk for security--or for love--is a major question here. It's intriguing to see how these groups of women manipulate men (the ostensible power wielders) to their own ends.
Camp Zero is compelling dystopian cli-fi with three-dimensional characters--a perfect read for fans of Station Eleven, To Paradise and The Handmaid's Tale. The ending leaves the way open for a sequel. Bring it on. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck
Shelf Talker: Michelle Min Sterling's compelling dystopian debut features isolated groups--mainly women--driven to northern Canada by environmental and technological extremes.