Division Zero (Division Zero #1) - Matthew S. Cox

In a future where adbots chase after an endless stream of hovercars, where bionic enhancement has become commonplace, where telekinesis is an accepted skillset, where any food that isn't based off of the ubiquitous OmniSoy is a luxury, Kirsten Wren still manages to be an oddity.  Kirsten is a psyonic in the police force's Division Zero, the psych squad.  Her rare talent allows her to look into others' minds and wield literally mindblowing blasts of psionic energy, to see into the astral plane and interact directly with the ghosts that inhabit it.  Rarest of all, Kirsten can do more than simply see ghosts: she can deal out damage.  When Division Zero starts getting reports of android "dolls" going crazy with no evidence of hardware or software failure, Kirsten is sent to take a look.  What she finds will take her on a path that will lead to vengeful spirits, corporate espionage, paid assassins, and some seriously narrow escapes.


My favourite aspect of the book was definitely the worldbuilding.  The world is drawn with sparse, broad strokes: we know that Mars is settled, that there's some kind of war going on between a massive corporate conglomerate and what's left of the united states, that huge areas of the mega-cities were abandoned to fall into dangerous and disreputable Dark Zones, that towering city-structures caused the Beneath, the city under the city, to become the home of mutant humans and apocalyptics.  I would have loved to understand more of the political climate, to see more of the underpinnings of the world, but I liked its wide scope. I really loved the little details such as the in-apartment auto-laundry machines and the restaurants perched atop the skyscrapers whose offerings consisted entirely of imaginatively reconstituted OmniSoy.  Cox's imagined future has a multitude of rich detail, from the stint packs that can heal on command to the digital sticks used as money to the smart mattress gels that change shape and temperature to accommodate a body.


Despite the immersive worldbuilding, I had some difficulty getting into the book.  Cox has a rather grating tendency to fall into infodumping, mostly of the "As You Know" variety.  For example, the book starts out with a conversation between Kirsten and an old friend who proceed to have a long, awkwardly revelatory conversation about Kirsten's talents and background as well as the current structure of the world. While I understand that Cox is trying to avoid direct exposition, having people "tell" in a set of artificial conversations isn't quite the same thing as "showing."  This infodumping led to a vague dissatisfaction because the characters' tendency to discuss and debate their own culture made them feel a bit like outsiders in their own society.  While I looked forward to more details about the world, most of the infodumps centred on Kirsten's history.


Unfortunately, I also found Kirsten herself somewhat irritating.[1]  She has an impressively tragic past, but in my opinion, tragedy is not a substitute for personality. Kirsten is a slight blonde with beautiful "sapphire" eyes and a figure that is displayed to advantage by her skintight black uniform, and Cox never lets you forget it.  Cox certainly put a lot of effort into writing an indisputably female character: despite the urgent situations around her, Kirsten spends a lot of time "hugging," "pouting," and "sulking," and also emotes and cries at the drop of a hat. She appears to think about men at least once every seven seconds and sizes up every Y-chromosome she meets for desirability; at the ripe age of twenty-two, she is already bemoaning her inability to catch a man and her inevitably single future. Even though the main character is female, the book came terrifyingly close to failing the Bechdel test, mainly because Kirsten's friend Nicole is even more appallingly "man-mad" than Kirsten.  The two spend most of their conversations giggling about men, discussing "tits and asses" (yes, in those terms), and bemoaning the fact that men tend to stop sexually harrassing them as soon as they discover the women are Division 0. As one friend tells Kirsten,

"You know, in the entire force except for maybe Div 6, female personnel half as pretty as you are always complaining about unwanted attention. I have to say I find it amusing you complain about being left alone."

Take Kirsten's reaction to crude come-ons:

"That's hot. Pure girls are the best." [...]

"Kirsten appraised him with an unprepared blink, surprised at her disappointment in the lack of direct come on."

The "tits and ass" jokes, are, in fact, ubiquitous throughout. As far as I could tell, most of the "humour" appears to be derived from the impressive amount of sexual harassment that Kirsten and other women receive from their male counterparts.  Given that we encounter several women who are in positions of power, plus the fact that bionic enhancements would remove any disparities in strength, I found the entrenched sexual harassment to be unrealistic as well as utterly unamusing.  Kirsten's attitude didn't improve matters.[2]  Given that she thinks that

"It's harassment only if you don't want it, and they don't stop when you tell them to get lost."

I surmise that someone is in need of basic sensitivity training.


The ghosts also felt like a missed opportunity.  The general idea is promising: ghosts with unfinished business stick around.  They will either vanish into a place of light or be dragged off by the shadowy Harbingers.  While this setup provides a lot of interesting directions, most of the discussion centres around a somewhat sophomoric philosophical discussion of religion. Because of her background, Kirsten is vehemently anti-religious and takes the bisected world of bright light and horrible dark to be "proof" that there is no god.  Not only did her self-righteous, narrow-minded attitude do nothing for her likeability; the standard light/dark duology constricted an interesting idea into a rather heavy-handed and pedestrian religious debate.


The plot itself is fast-paced, with plenty of adventures, attacks, and ghostly encounters. Kirsten spends most of her time with her partner Dorian, and I liked both his character and their dynamics.  Certain awkward phrasing, such as "He sent a belaboured face at the ceiling" and "One gloomy hand reached out of the writhing mass," pulled me out of the narrative, but in general, I think the fast pace and heavy action made the book an enjoyable read.  Unfortunately, the pacing meant that many of the world's most intriguing aspects were left unexplored.  For example, I think the droids had a lot of potential, but internal inconsistencies lessened their appeal.  In Kirsten's world, self-aware droids are able to gain citizenship and failing to repair a seriously broken droid is considered murder.  Leaving aside the fact that failing to provide medical assistance to humans isn't considered murder unless you're a doctor, these same dolls are casually spoken of as objects to be bought and sold, as tools "on the market." All the dolls we see, even the self-aware ones, are utilized as tools by their owners rather than people, which seems inconsistent with the descriptions in-text.  I was struck by certain similarities to a video game: the plot is action-filled, convoluted, and has a heavy dependence on concatenations of coincidence. At the same time, there was at least one twist I really enjoyed.

I loved the revelation about Dorian.  Throughout the first two-thirds of the book, I was increasingly irritated by what looked like internal inconsistencies and lazy plotting.  However, as soon as his ghostly antecedence was clear, I realized that (a) many of those aspects made sense, and (b) I really should have guessed sooner, right when Nicole made her comment about the haunted car.  I love those moments of rueful appreciation.  At the same time, to decrease reader irritation, I think it could have easily been put around page 100, because Dorian's ghosthood does such a good job in lessening irritation over his role as heavy-handed psychiatrist/infodumper.


I also thought the ending felt contrived: the only way in which everything would have worked out would have been for him to die, so I knew it would happen as soon as his wife's ghost turned up.  However, the aspect I actually found irritating is that we never found out what the vaunted invention actually was.  It would have had to have been quite a technological advancement to be worth that much risk and money, yet no one inside the story actually seemed to care.

(show spoiler)


Overall, I really admired the breadth of imagination that went into the worldbuilding, and I think the interesting ideas and large scope did much to offset some technical flaws.  I also enjoyed the complete absence of love triangles, alpha males, and hardcore romance themes.  While my issues with Kirsten and some aspect of the plot decreased my enjoyment in the story, if you're in the mood for a cyberpunk adventure with a lot of action and creativity, it's definitely worth a look.

RATING: I should really give it a ~3.5, but my disproportionate irritation over the definition of harassment pulled it down to a 3.


~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Curiosity Quills, in exchange for my honest review.~~


[1]  As one character tells her, "Perfect little angel...you are nauseating." I agree with everything except the "perfect angel" part. 

Take her comments on her best friend:

"For your sake, I hope whatever man you decide to marry has the attention span of a goldfish."

(show spoiler)


Apparently, Cox's idea of "healing" is an increased sex drive an a new comfort with putting on a "show" and letting random men see you naked.

(show spoiler)