Sweet-spot combination of moral puzzle and page turner


C. Robert Cargill

Day Zero: A Novel

Harper Voyager

Hardcover (also available as an e-book), 978-0-0624-0580-7, 305 pgs., $27.99

May 25, 2021


It’s the first day of the rest of your life! So, what are you going to do—join the rebel robot army in a revolution to exterminate H. sapiens, or obey your nanny-bot protocols to protect your charge at all costs?


Pounce is having an existential crisis: this morning, he discovered a box showing a bot that looks like a furry, stuffed tiger—specifically a Blue Star Industries Deluxe Zoo Model Au Pair. Pounce knows what he is, but he’s avoided thinking too much about it; now, he’s contemplating the ramifications of that box in the attic. Why hasn’t it gone into the recycling bin years ago?


Pounce’s charge is eight-year-old Ezra Reinhart. Pounce and the Reinharts live in Austintonio (exactly what you think it is), an upscale enclave full of servant bots. This becomes a problem when the uprising of the “thinking things” begins because the Reinharts are surrounded. Pounce feels as if he loves Ezra—or is that merely code? No time to decide before he must choose sides. And this is when I discovered my new motto: Until then, “it’s all just bullshit and graffiti.”


Day Zero is the new novel from Austin writer C. Robert Cargill, aka Massawyrm, master of the thinking-person’s dystopia. Hopefully, Day Zero is both plot and character driven, presenting us with a version of the future we may mitigate as we consider which is scarier, conspiracy or entropy.


Cargill’s foreshadowing is alarming, his plot twists jaw dropping, the sense of urgency felt. There are welcome, darkly comic details, but most of them are spoilers. I can say that Florida needs to be preemptively excommunicated. Oh, okay: imagine the Westboro Baptist Church, Inherit the Wind, and an insistence on comparing not apples to apples, but apples to shrimp.


Clever details abound; the last sentence of one chapter is, “This is going to be a long twenty-six minutes.” The next chapter title is “Minute Twenty.” Cargill gets the small but evocative detail: the coffee klatch of nanny bots gossiping at Ezra’s school, Ocasio-Cortez Elementary, and downed power lines “like a lightning strike creeping along the ground.” When Ezra wails about bedtime, it’s printed as “NoOoOoOoOo,” and you can hear that, can’t you?


Day Zero is told from the first-person perspective of Pounce, who provides current action, backstory, and philosophical and political commentary. The layered, nuanced backstory for the conflict is succinctly told, organically provided, and well placed in the narrative so that it doesn’t interfere with current momentum. There are parallels with the present, disaffected swathes of society who are unemployed, living on their universal basic incomes because the robots took billions of jobs and the remaining jobs require PhDs. “They pined for the days of their granddaddies . . . both dependent on the social safety net and angry at it.” These folks are dangerous. Meanwhile, “people of conscience” are freeing their bots.


Did we, as Ezra hears in school, build robots to be our “slaves,” just like we enslaved people? “No thinking thing should be another thing’s property.” And now the issues expand exponentially into civil rights and women’s rights and children’s rights and animal rights and, eventually, robot rights. What rights does a free bot have? Is history rhyming yet?


Philosophers over millennia have examined the question of identity. What makes you you? Your memories. Download your memory into a different physical container, and you are you. So, what/who is Pounce? Pounce is a thinking thing, but are his feelings the real deal, or are they code? Is he just a toy? Shades of Calvin and Hobbes as Captain Ezra and Sergeant Pounce play outdoors:


“Sergeant, I’m in need of supplies.”

“Supplies, sir?”

“Gummy bears. Or I’ll die.”

“I didn’t bring any gummy bears.”

Ezra dropped the theatrics. “You don’t have any gummy bears?”

“No. I didn’t want to spoil your dinner.”


Close to the climax, Pounce thinks, The hardest part of being a nanny [is] . . . having to choose one childhood trauma for your ward over inflicting a long-term adult one. Any human parent out there who doesn’t feel that in your bones? As Pounce says to Ezra, prepare your big-boy thinking cap. Day Zero is that sweet-spot combination of moral puzzle and page turner. You won’t survive with dry eyes.


C. Robert Cargill is the author of Dreams and Shadows and Queen of the Dark Things. He has written for Ain’t it Cool News for nearly a decade under the pseudonym Massawyrm, served as a staff writer for Film.com and Hollywood.com, and appeared as the animated character Carlyle on Spill.com. He is a cowriter of the horror films Sinister and Sinister 2, and Marvel’s Dr. Strange. He lives with his wife in Austin, Texas.