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Fiction Dystopian

Camp Zero

A Novel

by (author) Michelle Min Sterling

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Apr 2023
Dystopian, Literary, Feminist
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2023
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"Thrilling. . . . This remarkable debut delivers its big ideas with suspense, endlessly surprising twists, and abundant heart." —Jessamine Chan, author of The School for Good Mothers
In a near-future northern settlement, a handful of climate change survivors find their fates intertwined in this mesmerizing and transportive novel in the vein of Station Eleven and The Power.

America, 2049: Summer temperatures are intolerably high, the fossil fuel industry has shut down, and humans are implanted with a ‘Flick’ at birth, which allows them to remain perpetually online. The top echelons of society live in Floating Cities off the coast, while people on the mainland struggle to survive. For Rose, working as a hostess in the city’s elite club feels like her best hope for a better future.

When a high-profile client offers Rose a job as an escort at a fledgling company in northern Canada called Camp Zero—a source of fresh, clean air and cool temperatures—in return for a home for her displaced mother and herself, she accepts it. But in the north, all is not as it seems.

Through skillfully entwined perspectives, including a young professor longing to escape his wealthy family and a group of highly trained women engaged in climate surveillance at a Cold War era research station, the fate of the Camp and its inhabitants comes into stunning relief. Atmospheric, original, and utterly gripping, Camp Zero interrogates the seductive and chilling notion of a utopia; asks who and what will survive as global tensions rise; and imagines how love may sustain us.

About the author

Contributor Notes

MICHELLE MIN STERLING was born on Vancouver Island, BC, and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches literature and writing at Berklee College of Music. She has an MFA from Boston University and has held writing fellowships at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Baffler, VICE, and Joyland. Camp Zero is her first novel.

Excerpt: Camp Zero: A Novel (by (author) Michelle Min Sterling)


The Blooms receive their new names on the shortest day of the year. Six women in total. All strangers. They stand in an empty parking lot and wait to be checked in. Snow has scrubbed the landscape clean, capped the roof of the run-down mall that is one of the few buildings still standing on this frozen stretch of highway.

The Bloom last in line pauses to appreciate the freeze. It’s colder in the North than she expected, and the snow is more delicate. She takes off a glove and watches a flake vanish in the palm of her hand. She’s never seen snow before, and the snowflake feels refreshing on her skin, like a cool cloth pressed to a feverish forehead.

When she reaches the entrance to the mall, her new Madam introduces herself as Judith. She is nothing like the Bloom’s previous Madam, who drifted around in a linen caftan and calfskin sandals. Judith wears a fur-lined parka, black snow pants, and a pair of steel-toe boots, as if she was hired to demolish the dilapidated mall they’re standing in front of.

Judith reads off a clipboard. “Your name will be Rose.”

“Rose,” she repeats. A cloying, sentimental name. Like a grandmother who keeps apple pies in the deep-freeze. She had expected one of the pseudonyms shared among the “Asian Girls” in the Loop where she used to work: Jade, Mei, Lotus. It never mattered that the names were cliché, or that she is as white as she is Korean. Back in the Floating City, ethnicity was a ready-made brand.

Judith lowers her voice. “I wanted to let you girls choose your names for yourself. But Meyer likes things his way.”

“Is Meyer my client?” Rose asks, careful to sound casual.

“He doesn’t want us to use that word here, Rose. Think of him as your collaborator.” Judith opens the front door of the mall and Rose follows inside. “Welcome to the Millennium Mall.”

The Blooms’ quarters are at the back of the mall in a department store that has long since been pillaged. Metal clothing racks are scattered in jumbled piles, and the beauty counters’ mirrors are mottled. Rose can smell the faintest trace of artificial gardenia as she rolls her suitcase past a perfume display, where an ad of a woman’s glowing face pressed against the bristly cheek of a male model still remains. Her mother never wore perfume and hadn’t allowed Rose to either. She wanted them to smell as they actually did, like the saltwater breeze of the peninsula.

“When did the mall close?” Rose asks.

“Fifteen years ago,” Judith says. “It was the first place to shutter when the rigs stopped drilling.”

Judith leads Rose to the former furniture section where the Blooms’ lodgings have been built out of plywood along an echoing corridor. Each room’s entrance is framed by light, and Rose can hear the sounds of the other Blooms unpacking behind the closed doors.

Judith opens Rose’s door and deposits her single suitcase on a mahogany four-poster bed. A bear pelt is splayed across the floor, and a rickety plastic chandelier is bolted to the ceiling. A vanity mirror with a small, upholstered stool in front of it is against the wall. The room reeks of damp pleather.

Damien, her former client who set her up with this job, warned her that the camp would be spare, but he said nothing about squatting in a derelict shopping mall. It’s too late to give Damien shit now. Rose won’t speak with him again until her assignment is complete. All she has is her contact in camp, who Damien promised would reach out when the moment is right. She wonders if Judith might be her contact, but then decides this clipboard-wielding woman is too straightforward for that level of deception.

“Water is heated to tepid,” Judith says, and shows Rose the “sanitizing schedule” tacked to her bedroom door. Judith explains that the Blooms are expected to share the mall’s washroom, where a nozzle attached to one of the sink’s faucets functions as a makeshift shower. “We run on oil and have to conserve energy to maintain our supply.”

“Oil isn’t illegal here?” Rose asks in surprise. In the Floating City, oilusage is treated with the same moral outrage as murder.

“Nothing is illegal in camp,” Judith says. “That’s why we live off-grid. We’re lucky enough to make our own rules here.”

Rose wonders if the rules of the camp are like the rules of the Floating City, created to benefit those who made them. If this is the case, then she doubts Judith is the one who made the rules. Judith strikes her as a middle manager, a local hire paid to oversee the Blooms, whose influence in camp is confined to the domestic arrangements of the bedrooms. But Judith is technically Rose’s boss, so she will have to adopt the blasé disinterest of a jaded escort to keep her new Madam from becoming suspicious of her. Even if Judith only runs the Blooms’ side of camp, she still holds some form of power, which is more than Rose can openly say for herself.

Judith tells Rose to unload her suitcase on the bedspread. Rose dumps the contents into a pile: two slips, a bodycon cocktail dress, a black silkdress, a silk robe, linen pajamas, a merino wool sweater, two pairs of pants, a few blouses, socks, lingerie sets, back-seam stockings, shiny heels, calf-skin boots, hair ties, and cosmetics. Judith is quiet and focused as she inspects each item.

“What are you looking for?” Rose asks.

“Sharp edges. And drugs.” Judith flicks on the jet-black lace lamp on the nightstand, illuminating a stack of books. “We keep a clean house here. Only booze and cigarettes allowed.”

Judith runs her fingers along the seams of Rose’s clothing, rifling through the cosmetic bag, opening the lipsticks and powder. Rose feels an impulse to snatch her clothes away from her. She picks up one of the books on the nightstand instead, a hardcover titled Building in Ruins, with a photo of a young, bearded, solemn-looking man printed inside the dust jacket. His shirtsleeves are rolled to his elbows, and he appears to be standing in a parched acre of desert next to a modernist house.

“‘An indispensable manifesto on finding silver linings in annihilation,’”Rose reads from the back cover. “Is it any good?”

“Oh, you like to read?” Judith sounds surprised. “You’re welcome to find out for yourself. That’s Meyer’s first book, published right after he graduated from architecture school. You’ll find all of his writings here.”Judith taps another book titled Utopia after the Anthropocene. “He likes to keep us educated.”

For a moment, Rose doesn’t care about the mildewy smell in the room, or that a panel in the ceiling is caving in, or even that her new Madam assumes she’s illiterate. Meyer’s books are here for her to read. A small victory, but an essential one. Reading what Meyer thinks and feels will be the first step to gaining his trust. Everything Damien promised her depends on this.

“The room is very . . .” Rose searches for the right word. “Cozy.”

Judith looks at her and then laughs. “That’s bullshit and you know it. It smells like a dead animal in here. But we have to make do with what we have. Let me show you the kitchen.”

Judith leads Rose down a dark hallway into a room that smells of fresh paint and industrial glue. The kitchen is nothing like the polished dining rooms of the Loop where she used to dine with clients. This kitchen looks like it was once the department store’s staff break room, complete witha microwave, an electric two-burner stove, and a fridge that hums in the corner. A white plastic table, the kind left to mildew in a backyard, is positioned in the corner of the room next to a stack of patio chairs.

The camp’s kitchen may not have a wine cellar, but at least it has natural light. Rose steps toward the floor-to-ceiling window and watches the snow softly falling on the trees. This view will be her refuge.

“The snow is so pure you can eat it with a spoon,” Judith says.

Rose is impressed. Even in the Floating City, the water is filtered. Or is it ozonated? She can’t recall. She touches behind her left ear to check which it is, but Judith interrupts her by gesturing to one of the chairs.

“I’m going to recite a short statement and need your verbal consent if you agree,” Judith says.

Rose sits down at the table and nods.

“AKA Rose, do you agree to undergo Flick extraction for a period of three months?” Judith looks at her digital wristwatch. “Commencing at1:12 p.m., December 21, 2049?”

Rose knows she has no choice. “Yes.”

“Can you lean toward me?” Judith unzips a leather bag and snaps a latex glove on each hand.

Rose pushes her hair over one shoulder. “Will it hurt?”

“No more than it did going in.” Judith ties Rose’s hair with an elastic band and presses behind Rose’s left ear until she finds the telltale bump.“You were one of the first to get implanted, weren’t you?”

“How can you tell?”

“Your Flick is first-generation, which makes it easier to locate.”

Rose had been five years old when she received her Flick. Before it became common practice to implant at birth, every child received a Flick before starting kindergarten. One ChildOne Flick. A school nurse had scanned Rose’s eyes and fingerprints, then imprinted her facial data witha flash photo. The nurse asked Rose to wave at the implantation robot with its smiling face and two disquietingly unblinking eyes. The robot waved back before making three tiny punctures along the crown of Rose’s head as it weaved the electrode threads through the synapses of her brain. When the two-millimeter opening was cut behind her left ear, Rose felt a tiny implosion of pressure. A single tear had rolled down her cheek as the robot nested the iridescent chip into the incision.

Now Judith presses again, harder this time. “There you are.” She marks the spot with a pen. “Count to three. This will only be a pinch.”

Rose closes her eyes as Judith uncaps the metal plunger and presses firmly. A sucking sound, mounting pressure, and then a precise pop.

“You’re all done, Rose.” Judith uses pin droppers to place the Flick into a test tube.

“Can I see it?” Rose asks after Judith seals the tube. Judith shrugs and hands the test tube to her. “It’s yours.”

Rose has never seen her Flick, even though it has been in her body for over twenty years. Hers is bulkier than the ones now routinely implanted. It is about the same size as the nail on her pinky finger, and almost translucent, but when she tilts the tube from side to side, the Flick shimmers in the colors of bioluminescence—coral, green, topaz.

“Do you feel different?” Judith asks.

Rose looks at the top left corner of the room. She blinks. Once. Twice. Nothing. No feed appears. Think of something dead. No, something beyond dead. Think of something extinct. The last story Rose saw on her Flick involved Samson the tiger at the Bronx Zoo dying of heatstroke. A headline as feed-worthy as one of the last living tigers on Earth would usually trigger a proliferating cascade of stories—the encyclopedia entry on tigers in captivity; vintage footage of baby tigers rolling around in dirt; a biologist lecturing on the challenges of raising big cats in a warming climate; tiger stripes; tiger ice cream; stuffed tigers; humans in tiger suits. Rose focuses and thinks again: tiger. But still her feed does not appear.

Instead, she remembers the tiger she once saw at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, back when the zoo was still open and the resident tiger alive. Her mother had taken her to celebrate her sixth birthday, a rare break from their life on the peninsula. The memory is grainy, but she can see it more clearly if she closes her eyes: her mother, unfathomably young, eating an overpriced ice cream cone while seated on a blisteringly hot steel bench. She passes the ice cream to Rose and holds a napkin under her daughter’s chin while she licks. Once the cone is consumed, she picks Rose up to see the animal behind bars, a happiness swelling between them that blooms into her mother tongue.

“Horangi,” her mother says, and points at the tiger.

Rose dangles there for a moment in her mother’s arms, trying to catch the attention of the lusciously striped animal by repeating the Koreanword. She falters on the second syllable and feels her cheeks flush with embarrassment. The tiger doesn’t care about her poor pronunciation. Hesits perfectly still like he has been frozen in amber, blinking only when a fly settles into his eye’s dark crease.

A dusty memory conjured from the ether. Damien had warned her that without her Flick, memories might surface unexpectedly, but she hadn’t anticipated how near they’d feel again. She closes her eyes, and her mother is still there, laughing in a way Rose had forgotten.

“I can’t access my feed,” Rose says, and hands back the Flick.

Judith places the tube in the wooden box. “You’ll get used to it. Meyer wants the Blooms to be pure and uncorrupted by technology.”

Rose touches behind her ear instinctively. Nothing remains except for the blue dot of ink.

Editorial Reviews

"Sterling’s stunning debut offers a glimpse into a climate change–ravaged future in which resources diminish quickly and new frontiers are hard to find. . . . This cleverly constructed climate fiction mystery feels like one many readers could see within their lifetimes. This should earn a place on shelves alongside Station Eleven and Annihilation." —Publisher's Weekly, starred review

“Sterling vividly renders a harrowing near-future world ravaged by climate change while still offering hope through human connection and perseverance.” Booklist

“A gripping story about survival, with compelling characters and frightening plot twists that will keep you riveted.”—Real Simple

“Surprising and satisfying. . . . [Camp Zero is] an absorbing novel . . . [and] debut in the field of climate fiction.” The Guardian

"Camp Zero is the thrilling, urgent feminist climate fiction that the world needs. With extraordinary world-building, captivating characters, and sharp commentary on climate change, technology, colonialism, capitalism, and the patriarchy, Michelle Min Sterling’s remarkable debut delivers its big ideas with suspense, endlessly surprising twists, and abundant heart." —Jessamine Chan, author of The School for Good Mothers
“Michelle Min Sterling has written a big, gutsy, clear-eyed novel of the near future that neither lurches with dread nor swoons with false hope: it's a cold, hungry adventure story about the power of choice and the strength of solidarity. You won't be able to put it down.” —Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors and The Wagers

Camp Zero is a sui generis novel, boldly imagined, intricately designed, and convincingly detailed. Though set in the near future, it resonates with a palpable sense of reality and with the deep insights into some dimensions of the human condition, such as migrations, the burden of the past, environmental destruction, gender inequality, self-recreation. Page by page, the prose shines with subtle verbal artistry. This is groundbreaking literary work.” —Ha Jin, author of A Song Everlasting
“An exhilarating tale of survival set in a world of environmental decline, Camp Zero explores a future brimming with equal parts rage and resilience. . . . This powerful, prescient story will haunt the reader’s imagination long after the final page.” —Laura Maylene Walter, author of Body of Stars
“Michelle Min Sterling reports back from the future in this fiercely imagined conjuring of the devastating impacts of our warming world. Alternately terrifying and enthralling, this is a propulsive read with touches of Blade Runner, even Fury Road’s survival-is-everything pace and intensity where female strength is on delightful display. But even on its darkest pages, Camp Zero is infused with the conviction that the way out—if there is one—lies in old ideas like love, bravery, and shared community.” —Erica Ferencik, author of Girl in Ice and The River at Night
"In a series of ingenious twists and increasingly tight connections, Sterling imagines how, in the chaos that ensues after the ice caps melt, our most marginalized brethren may gain a foothold to power. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time: it's mesmerizing, terrifying, and ultimately, hopeful." —Caroline Woods, author of The Lunar Housewife
“A tantalizing and terrifying tour de force, Michelle Min Sterling boldly remixes the realities of our present world, the danger we are in, and the fates we have settled for through a mesmerizing story of loyalty, deception, and ultimately love. Camp Zero’s dark twists and bright turns left me breathless, hopeful, furious, and emboldened until the very end.”Nancy Jooyoun Kim, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Story of Mina Lee