Zeroes is an unusual sort of young-adult novel: It’s a collaboration between authors Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti, about young people with superpowers. But it’s already on the bestseller list. Check out an inside look at how they pulled this off.
Zeroes is about six teenagers with superpowers that are “crowd-based.” Each of their abilities works better in a large group (whether of people or of networked machines). They’re social superpowers, in other words. And one of the book’s central themes is how people, teens in particular, define themselves socially, and how our powers, super or not, define our character.
Zeroes is a collaboration—between Margo Lanagan, Deborah Biancotti, and me—so creating the characters and their powers was a social act in itself. We started with weekly bullshitting sessions over beer at a local pub, and outlined at a writers’ retreat. But when it came time to demonstrate how a power really worked, we individually wrote “sample chapters,” showing the character in action.
None of these samples made it into the book, but they served as signposts, prototypes, and proving grounds. They’re also interesting as a writing process tool for solo writers: if you can’t write an interesting out-of-context 1000-word vignette about a character, you (and your readers) might not want to stick with them over 500 pages.
So here are two of our samples chapters, one for the group’s leader, Nate (codename: Bellwether), and one for Chizara (codename: Crash), whose power works with networks rather than people.
We’re keeping who wrote what a secret for now.
Nate learned something in every class, but not by listening to the teacher. Reading wasn’t his thing, either, really. Too solitary. Too boring, with all those characters in the book talking to each other and no one listening to him.
But watching—that was how you learned. If he looked closely, Nate could always see the dynamics of a class. The shifts of dominance, focus, and attention that lit up the air like sparklers. That made the world go around.
And what else was worth learning about?
So Nate always sat in the back, where he could see the dance unfolding. But that afternoon, as the students filed into World History, Ms. Adams spoke up.
“Up front today, Nate.” She patted a chair on the first row.
Nate hesitated, already halfway back to his usual spot. He felt that moment of motionlessness sink his chances.
He tried a smile. “Even if I promise to behave?”
Ms. Adam’s eyes stayed locked on him. She was wearing a black wool suit jacket, the padded shoulders giving her a tiny extra measure of authority.
“Right up here, Nate. Where I can see your pretty face.”
He felt his smile broaden, twist a little. If it had been just the two of them in the room, he would have gone on charming her. Or tried to, anyway. But Nate could already feel the eyes on him, the contest of wills drawing everyone’s attention, the dirty little buzz of primate conflict. And today Ms. Adams wasn’t just being a pain. She was getting revenge for last Friday, when Nate had gotten his pals in the back giggling about the ruins of Lake Titicaca. (A challenge was always interesting, but easy was also fun.)
The balance in the room was shifting, the air heating up a little, like a blush creeping across his face. If you were going to lose, it was best to give in quickly. But before he could shrug and concede defeat, she spoke up again.
“Now, Mr. Harper.” Her hand patted the chair back again.
Somebody in the room snickered, and Nate felt something shredding in the air, his sway over the room. Suddenly, the attention of the other students had turned acid in his stomach.
I shall answer this affront in a method of my choosing, he thought. At times like these, it was a magic spell that allowed him to keep his smile intact as he made his way up to the front of the room and sat down. Not in the exact chair she’d been touching, but the one next to it.
Ms. Adams let him get away with that. But he wasn’t done with her.
He hated sitting in the front row, feeling everyone’s eyes trained on the back of his head, his own friends back there thinking he was a chump.
Nate hated people pointing at the place he was supposed to go, or telling him where to stand, or what to say next. And the adults who did so only got their way because they cheated, going nuclear whenever anyone ignored them. Using force, basically.
Ms. Adams’ lesson that day was more South American empires, the Aztecs and Incas with their bloody rituals and polysyllabic gods, the sort of thing Nate might have enjoyed, normally. But he was too busy planning his revenge.
It didn’t take him long to see what to do. Ms. Adams was just that little bit edgy now, having him in the front row. She wasn’t used to his smile from this close. The expression had been locked in place since their confrontation, and it was entirely genuine-looking, he knew.
Which made people nervous.
After a while, as he knew she would, Ms. Adams started pacing. So he started playing her.
It was just an experiment at first. Whenever she started toward the right side of the room, he would frown just a little. Shake his head at whatever she was saying, as if it didn’t quiet make sense.
And whenever she paced toward the left, Nate smiled, nodded, even opened his mouth a little in awe and surprise, as if she’d made some perfect and apposite point.
At first it wasn’t enough, his own smiling and frowning, but he knew how to fix that. He shook his head just a little bit harder, so that everyone behind him could see it. Once, he even made a small noise of disapproval, enough to draw the rest of their eyes. He felt their attention settle on him like a mantle, and drew them in his wake—nodding and smiling when she went leftward, all them shaking their heads in dismay when she went right. Not so much that she would notice, just enough to worry her hindbrain, to urge her gently over to the windows.
With twenty minutes left in the class, she was all the way to the left, her back pressed against the windows. Trapped by the class’s clear esteem.
It wasn’t enough yet, though. So Nate started pushing her back, rattling the whole class’s annoyance whenever she got nearer the students’ desks, smiling and nodding whenever she eased back toward where the wall met the blackboard.
He cornered Ms. Adams there, pushed her hard until he was certain that he’d left a mark.
Then, all at once, he let her go. Let the gathered skeins of the other students’ attention unravel and spill across the room. The temperature cooled.
Ms. Adams, visibly relieved, found her way back into her usual spot behind her desk. But when she turned around to write on the board again, Nate was pleased to see a scuff of chalk dust marring the black wool of her jacket.
A mark of victory.
And the very next day, she let him sit in the back again.
Chizara slams the door of the Beetle and strolls to the lookout fence. She’s alone up here in the dusk. Kids come up here all the time, but not on a Tuesday night, so much. Not without a case of beer or a bottle of Coke-and-something. Not by themselves.
Randomville lies below, a black sequined quilt undulating away to the distant hills. By the time it splashes up those hills, the lights are pulsing with all the interference between them and Chizara: gas fumes, summer heat, whatever the mayonnaise-factory pumps out, and a quarter-million people’s homes. All the hot air that comes out people’s mouths. But it’s cool up here, and no one’s speaking. Chizara can concentrate completely on her mission, which, Mama tells her, is to Do No Harm.
Or not. It builds up this pressure; she can’t hold off forever. It’s like a full bladder; a person can only contain so much before, you know, leakage. Accidents. Little losses of control. Chizara doesn’t like that—when everyone’s phone suddenly gives out around her, or she dozes off on the subway and wakes up stalled in a tunnel with all the other passengers panicking. It’s better to do something and stay in charge, release some of the tension, buy herself some time. And the bigger the release, the more mega she goes, the longer she can last before she needs to relax again, to just take a damn break from all this perceiving, all this following of nerve-endings back to their sources.
It’s a beautiful series of spreads below, she has to admit. Her arms are folded, but she puts out mental fingers. She’s always doing this, automatically, feeling for nodes, digging for chips, amazing herself with the fragility of things. The whole of West Brickside street-lighting hangs on that crappy soldering job? They store their servers there, so close to the exterior, on the tenth floor? All their comms rely on that one switch, unprotected by any housing or password? Are they insane?
They are, really. It’s kind of sweet, how much people trust that things will keep working, will stay the same, that a locked door will keep out people like Chizara. Or unlike her. People who haven’t got the same mission. People who do want to harm people, or break things, or stir up trouble just for fun, or out of hatred or being sick in the head.
All the while as she thinks these things she’s tracing the routes by the tensions in her own body, the splits and mergings in the fibers of her own will. The transformers gleam like beads on a necklace; households hang in clumps from each bead. Each house has its own little cluster of e-pretties, live or sleeping; each necklace terminates at the substation there or there, or—How far can she take this? Being up so high gives her a bit more reach; being alone takes away some. She feels out as far as she can, to where she can only see the patterns vaguely, not feel them so much through her own resistance, her own resentment of their innocent shine and flow, her need to take that down, take that apart and feel exactly how it was put together, by the way it ceases and fades.
Okay. She checks through what she can see, that it matches everything she studied up on, that nothing has happened since she walked the streets below, loitering outside the hospital and checking that its Uninterruptable Power Supply really was uninterruptable, feeling for a backup generator at the aged care facility. She can’t know everything, but she can minimize the harm in a big-picture sort of way; she can choose her targets, orchestrate her disasters. It’s not full-blown fun operating this way. It doesn’t properly scratch the constant itch she feels to let go, to relax, but it has its own rewards.
She eyes the whole array, in that moment before instinct takes over; she chooses one necklace and, hugging herself in the slight summer breeze, releases her hold on it. A small cleft opens in the jeweled field of the suburbs; a spotlit church steeple blackens against the lights beyond, their pink, their gold, their cold, cold blue.
With the second letting-go the nerves leave her, and she lets go her arms and reaches out after her own mind to douse the lamps with her hands, as if she threw darkness from the hilltop, to splash among the houses and along the streets.
Bit by bit, transformer by transformer, Chizara mottles the once-regular carpet of light in an arc around the lookout, and each gout of darkness she throws down is a bite-sized piece out of the noise and the strain. She carries that stuff around with her always and everywhere, unless she’s deep in the country with every gadget left behind. It’s constant exclamation in her head, a niggle of excitement in her guts, an ongoing fascination that shapes her every waking hour. She’s felt it so long, she hardly notices any more. But in moments like this she feels it all right, in the giving in, in the thinning and the fraying of the electronic web that’s woven more thickly across the city every day. The size of her gift, the strength of it, show in the silence that blooms inside her, the peace that takes the place of her usual hyper-awareness, her usual calculation, the simple darkness that blots out the buzz of the multiple systems fussing and functioning.
With a final sweep of her arm she blackens the remaining rivulets of light. Nothing illuminates those streets but car headlamps; nothing lights the houses and yards but the odd swinging flashlight beam. Breath after breath Chizara takes, in the absence of all other noise; sigh after sigh of relief she lets out over the puddle of darkness she’s poured from Lookout Hill.
There’s the roar of an engine behind her, the squeal of tires to a stop. She swings around guiltily; it’s a hot Camero, all blue flake curves and half-cut boys in open shirts. “And someone’s here waiting for us already! Hey there, honey! All alone tonight?’
She lifts a lazy arm and kills the car’s throbbing with a snap of her fingers. In the silence, as the driver exclaims and the passengers pull their heads in to register what’s happened, she jogs across to the Beetle and gets in. She pulls out of the parking space in a flamboyant arc. “Night, boys!” She blows a kiss as they start spilling out of the dead car, and rattles off into the darkness.