Camp Zero is not a book about your run-of-the-mill summer camp. It is about life after humanity has ruined the planet thanks to its dependency on fossil fuels and how the privileged few get to enjoy creature comforts while the rest of the world either burns, drowns or freezes. Camp Zero is a novel that touches on what one must do to survive in those conditions and proposes a very dystopian look at the part technology will play in the long run.
Rose is a Bloom, a hostess, a sex worker. And she's been sent up to Canada, one of the few places in the world where water can still freeze naturally, to work at a college campus. Except, the town is a ghost town, every Canadian there hates Americans, there is no actually college yet and she's forced to live in a run-down an abandoned mall. But not much else she can expect, considering the town only existed because of the oil rig. Now that oil has been banned for years, every one who could left.
Even so, Rose can't afford to leave. She has plans and a purpose. One good thing about being so far north is being off grid. The little implant in her ear that records her every thought and emotion, the feed playing in her mind, doesn't work here. And that is a blessing in and of itself, because she knows just how dangerous tuning the real world out can be.
I enjoy how the author, Michelle Min Sterling, uses various points of view and how we get a sense of place and time in a way that doesn't feel like head-hopping. Min Sterling also navigates the inherent prejudices of her characters in a way that feels natural. Rose is half-Korean, half-white, something that has helped her get wealthy clientele and something that sets her apart but also puts her in a few precarious situations. Every good novel includes characters we care about, and while we don't have to like those characters, we should be invested enough in their story to want to see how it plays out.
I'll be honest, I don't really like anyone at White Alice nor Grant Grimley, a man whose POV we see quite often. However, the author does a great job of forcing the reader to ask questions, and making those questions tantalizing enough for us to turn that page so we can, hopefully, get those questions answered. The characters in Camp Zero, from the other Blooms to those in management who use their services are clearly defined and that will keep you reading.
A second aspect that works well is the description of setting. We see the differences between the Floating City, where the elite and wealthy live jusxtaposed to the coast where Rose grew up, swept away by a hurricane, to the cold and barren north and we even get a sense of what it is like in other parts of the world and the US specifically (since Rose, our main character could never afford to travel outside of the country). And those descriptions help us to see inside the minds of the characters who live there, such as the clients that Rose has serviced, the Grimleys whose generational wealth has kept them in high society, the women of White Alice, who are abandoned by their country and turn to each other.
If I had to give this book a starred review, I think it would be about 4.5ish.
And yes, I know that is very vague but there are parts of it that I really enjoyed and parts that felt less real, less plot-driving to me. I know that regardless, it is at least a 4-star read. I am not sure what I was expecting from this novel but for a debut, it is quite amazing. And there are a lot of themes that Michelle Min Sterling works in well. But it makes me curious, so many themes exist that it is hard to pinpoint which is the focal point. From climate crisis to sex work to racism and classism, perhaps bias as a whole.
I think that what I liked the most, or perhaps what was the most refreshing bit of this book was actually the end. It is reminiscent of both a thriller but also a classic Studio Ghibli film. We don't always need the Disney-esque whitewashed happily ever after, do we? There are some stories where that doesn't make sense. However, the end of Camp Zero aligns perfectly with the world that the author has set up and with the characters that exist and take up space in that world. Michelle Min Sterling understands that a satisfactory ending does not necessarily have to be a happy one.
Have you read this book? If so, what would you rate it? What are you reading?