Ryan Winters
Trepidatio Publishing (May 28, 2021)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers

About ten years from now, the United States splinters politically, with the Southern states seceding, and Texas forming its own independent republic (now apparently allied with Russia). Fast forward to 2070. Mechs patrol the border between the remnants of the Reformed United States and the secessionist states. Climate change has caused massive disruptions, with wildfires and other environmental catastrophes having killed hundreds of thousands. What is left of the United States has become a dystopian nightmare, ruled by a politically oppressive regime that is nominally involved in a vast environmental remediation project called the Reformation, but in reality uses ubiquitous surveillance technologies and secret police to enforce capricious and intrusive laws.

Injected into this setting is a series of strange happenings at a research station site near the Arctic Circle. The staff of that station is killed off, one by one, by a dangerous alien creature that has escaped from a government containment unit. Two domestic security agents—divorced spouses, one of whom is clued in to what’s going on and the other deemed expendable by the government—are sent to the station during the storm of the century, to investigate and recapture the creature before it can escape.

We’re left with a pretty interesting series of narratives that come together in the present at the Arctic research station: the story of how this dystopian world came to be; the lives and backgrounds of those trapped at the station; and the story of the unscrupulous government officials who know exactly what is going on and just want to contain the damage before the escaped alien can cause more problems. All of these storylines are set in Alaska, either beyond the very fringes of human civilization, or in the rough-and-tumble cities of southern Alaska where the inhabitants face a hardscrabble life on what remains the American frontier. I was not surprised to learn that Winters himself used to work construction at the Arctic Circle, because I suspect that only someone with his background could have brought this setting and characters to life.

Comparisons with The Thing, especially John Carpenter’s version, or perhaps even the blue-collar workers vs. alien monstrosities of Alien, are probably inevitable, but there’s plenty here that is original. The alien of Zeroland is by no means a knock-off of either The Thing or Alien, and is plenty interesting on its own. The various characters—many ultimately doomed—are where Winters’ strength lies: Big Dave Okafor, a genuinely nice guy with a terrible past; Ursula Cantwell, Dave’s pregnant stripper girlfriend, who dreams of escape and happiness; Laine Arkady, the sad, troubled government operative willing to commit monstrous acts for her masters; Jesse Walsh, Laine’s ex-husband who gets roped into accompanying her on what may be his last mission. All have troubled pasts, many with secrets and situations they’re trying to escape, and difficult lives on the frontier of a society that seems to be in slow-motion collapse. Zeroland’s setting is intriguing, and I want to know much more about it, but it’s really in these characters, and many more, who find themselves caught up in it, where Winters and Zeroland shine.

Definitely recommended, especially if you’re intrigued by the incorporation of environmental devastation into your horror, or the idea of a murder mystery set within a future dystopia, or simply want to see blue-collar heroes pit against seemingly unstoppable forces.