Dell Zero by C. L. Ervin is a post-apocalyptic novel in which characters live ideal, peaceful, passive, carefree existences, as long as they conform to a politically imposed norm. Ervin presents readers an alternative social reality. It is very complete, so the reader will have to do a bit of work to keep up. There are lots of characters which are described in great background detail. I used a highlighter and had to refer back occasionally to verify which character I was following. That is because I read the book over a three-day period. If you are a fan of imagining what a different world might look like or what needs a social organization must fulfill to succeed; this is the book for you. If I had known it would be this detailed, I would have scheduled the time to read and finish it in one sitting.
Dell is the protagonist, 0 might be described as a generational name. Inhabitants of this society have numbers to describe how many times they have undergone a “transformation,” a process that extends their lives. Theoretically, nobody has to die. There is a cost; it seems that those with higher numbers (like 356) have difficulty remembering their previous lives. That might be due to the transformations themselves or it might be due to the drugs prescribed and ordered for all the population in order to maintain a docile society. There is Vitasat, that keeps workers on track by encouraging passivity, there is Vitamood which makes everyone at all levels feel good, Vitapurge which brings on the transformation and prolongs life, and Vitacure for curing illnesses and speeding up recovery from wounds. Additionally, there are nutrition packs which may have a drug and the requirement that everyone wears a wristscreen with a communication or tracking portal so that aberrant behavior can be dealt with through the administration of the appropriate drug.
There is no need for population control; this balanced society has zero births and zero deaths. There would be no story if there were no outlaws. They exist but they do not want to live in the well-regulated societies. They have access to the same drugs, but a few don’t want to take them. Fewer drugs and lower dosages allow the reappearance of free will. Those with free will recognize the injustices suffered by those assigned to lower order occupations that will never allow for advancement or recognition of potential. One of the byproducts of the outlaws is people like Dell. The number zero means she is a “natural,” a person in a society so structured that sexual reproduction is not practiced, advocated, or remembered. She has yet to be subject to the transformation ritual. Dell is not pleased with this. Since she is unregistered, she can’t travel freely. She can’t visit the cities and has to avoid capture by bands of catchers. Were she to be caught, she would be transported to the city, receive a wristscreen and portal, have drugs administered to her, and would be assigned a job. Perhaps she would be a med-tech but she might also be assigned to duties in security, transport, creative activities, fabrication, or the mines. This last is to be feared, miners are the lowest caste; it is more punishment than an assignment based on merit. These negatives cannot be appreciated by young Dell. She looks forward to capture and welcomes it when it happens.
Fortunately for Dell, there are some drugged denizens who are becoming increasingly aware of the flaws of their society. They look at people like Dell as a hope for a better future. Dell works in a more competent fashion, voices more opinions, and finds solutions to problems more effectively than her very much older drugged colleagues. One rebel, Oliver, shows her how to survive as a worker without attracting the attention of guards. Dell admires another rebel, Renggo, who seems to have no function other than to create chaos. John, a med-tech, and Pomeroy, both a med-tech and a pharma-analyst, begin to watch out for Dell in a mentor type relationship. Another fortunate point in Dell’s favor is a breakdown in the availability of drug supplies that assure compliance and bliss for the general population. Fewer drugs give rise to increased self-awareness which leads to a swelling of the outlaw or resistance population.
As the ideal society breaks down through a series of accidents and breakdowns, the reader will see the reemergence of human nature traits that are not desirable. Senior security officers Hercules and Atlas vie for power. The pinnacle of power is the Landlord. When the reader gets to the chapter in which the landlord is described, the reader can judge the value of perpetual life. Will the reader make the same choices as the characters in the book? That is not possible because the characters make varied decisions. Which character(s) would the reader follow?
There are not a lot of surprises in this story. There are a lot of well thought out “what if” situations. If you are the type of reader who likes Soylent Green (a movie) or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you will probably enjoy this book.
One of C. L. Ervin’s works in historical fiction, The Girl on the Mountain, encouraged me to read this book. I intend to read more of her work in that area.