Book Review: “Camp Zero” by Michelle Min Sterling
Camp Zero is one of those books that has inevitably gotten compared to Emily St. John Mandel’s now classic novel Station Eleven. And the jaded reader could sigh at this because there has been a lion’s share of books that have been influenced directly by Station Eleven: The Wolves of Winter is one of them. Thankfully, Camp Zero is its own novel, and the only reason that some people would be making the comparison is due to both books sharing similar titles and the fact that each is set in a dystopian near future where the world has either been ravaged by a virus (Station Eleven) or climate change (Camp Zero). Readers can be relieved by the fact that no cars are being drawn by horses in Camp Zero as they are in Station Eleven and its various knockoffs. It is a strong effort that’s inevitably about what would happen if American interests took hold of Canada’s natural resources — a fear that goes back as far as, at least in my memory, the Free Trade talks of the 1980s. (It probably goes much farther back than that.) This is a bewitching tale — one that works best if you know as little about it as possible going into it, but it’s also a work that is best read if you don’t think about the plot twists too much. This is an enjoyably fascinating book, one that you can slurp a Coke and get your fingers sticky with buttered popcorn to.
If you do feel that you need to know the plot of Camp Zero before giving it a go, it is essentially focused on the viewpoints of two alternating characters: Rose and Grant. Rose is an American citizen who hails from a floating city outside of Boston in the year 2049. She is sent to work in a brothel an abandoned oil town in northern Alberta, where her main mission is to keep tabs on an architect who is building a new community in the ravaged northlands. At the end of her mission, her Korean mother will be rescued from poverty and both women will become citizens of the floating city. Oil has been all but excavated in this Canadian setting, and the land is now seemingly barren, but Americans are working on building on the land and rehabilitating it — or are they? The mystery begins to cloud the settlement. Meanwhile, Grant is a young man who has been hired to educate the “Diggers” on the construction project, but he’s really on the run from his family. Something in his past is burdening him, but the longer he stays in the camp of construction workers, the more he begins to realize too that all is not what it seems. In between the chapters featuring these two characters, we learn of a radar station in Canada’s north called White Alice that is staffed by all women, and their mission is mysterious but linked to what’s happening in the rest of the narrative.
As you can see, this is an adrenaline-fuelled ride of crosses and double-crosses, and readers will be kept on the edge of their seats. I hesitate to say anything about the themes of this book because, in doing so, I would be giving away large segments of the plot — this is a book where plot elements are tightly wound together, and praising it for being a book about the depletion of resources could tip one’s hands to saying too much. However, this is a book about other things, too. It’s a book about the bonds between mothers and daughters, even when they are separated by great distances. This is a book about what it means to belong to a nationality, especially when you’re something of a dual citizen. This is also a read about familial expectations, and what happens when one abandons those expectations to go out and live a life entirely free from the constraints of being born into privilege. For a book that could be categorized as a beach read, a lot is going on between the covers and this is a deep and moving meditation on a lot of different things. Therefore, one reader will probably discover something to enjoy about this read that diverges from another reader.
However, this is really a book about Canada-U.S. relations. It may not be far-fetched that what this book prophesizes will become true: that Canada will be overrun by American interests, and simply become a site where Americans simply exploit Canada’s land for their own ends. In a sense, Camp Zero is a wake-up call — a plea to Canadians to pay attention to what is going on around them because the country could soon be overrun by those who live to the south of us. This is a fascinating element of the book because Canada has — as any student of Canadian history will know — also had something of a love-hate relationship with the United States, so it’s interesting to see a certain dynamic at work in Canadian fiction. This might be the most American book ever written that takes place largely on Canadian soil. Thus, Camp Zero has all the makings of a thoughtful blockbuster — a book that’s bound to be popular and creep onto a bestseller list of some kind, I think. So, yes, some may want to compare this book to Station Eleven. However, you will be pleased to know that Camp Zero takes the template laid down by that book and elevates it to another level. All in all, Camp Zero is a wonderful read that will have you biting your fingernails with the twists and suspense of its final half and will also have you thinking as well. True, some of the twists do seem a little “out there,” but, overall, this is a wildly entertaining book and one that readers wondering what the future may bring to Canada will want to devour.
Michelle Min Sterling’s Camp Zero was published by Knopf Canada on April 4, 2023.
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