Review: Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee


I owe Zeroboxer an apology—I expected this book to be fast-paced, high-octane sci-fi thriller/sports book. I did not expect Zeroboxer to be so incredibly smart about issues of class, poverty, race, xenophobia, sports and national identity, and the good old bootstrap ethos. And they’re all rooted in the same dilemma—the accessibility, legality, and ethics of gene modification.

Warning: Because I want to talk at length about Zeroboxer’s take on the topics mentioned above, I will be spoiling an important plot reveal about the protagonist. If you’d like to remain as unspoiled as possible, feel free to skip this review.

17-year-old Carr “the Raptor” Luka is a rising star in the burgeoning sport of zeroboxing, a physically-demanding combination of kickboxing and wrestling fought in zero-G. Having left over-crowded Earth to train and compete on the space station of Valtego, Carr has his eyes set on the championship title. Thanks to his almost unbroken record of wins and the support of his coach Uncle Polly and his brand-new marketing strategist Risha (courtesy of the Zero Gravity Fighting Association), he has nowhere to go but up.

Then Carr gets delivered a knockout blow. He should never have been competing in the first place—his very existence is illegal. The gene modification he received in utero is far beyond the standard, legal boundaries of gene therapy. He’s stronger, has greater endurance and concentration, heals exceptionally quickly, and has the ideal temperament for competing. In other words, he was created to be a winning athlete.

If the truth is discovered, all of Carr’s previous matches will be rendered invalid, and he might even be arrested for knowingly competing with his illegal gene profile. But Carr’s identity as one of the best zeroboxers is larger than himself—with the ZGFA, Risha, and the entire planet Earth counting on Carr to fulfill their dreams and represent them on the larger, interplanetary arena, can he let them down? More personally, can he let down his own dreams of being the champion he’s worked so hard to become?

The beauty of Zeroboxer is how the plot incisively makes use of the standard fate vs. free will debate. (This time with genes!) It’s an old argument, but exceptionally well-rendered in this particular setting and Carr’s specific predicament. Carr believed his zeroboxing prowess was earned, that he won his matches through his own efforts in and out of the arena. Upon discovering he was designed to be a prodigal athlete, Carr’s sense of self falls apart. Can he really say his success comes from “natural talent” and years of training when he was designed from conception to succeed in athletics? Is his single-minded focus to win his matches his own desire or the result of his genetically-modified temperament? To what extent is Carr the sum of his genes? (Side note: you do need to hand-wave away the existence of epigenetics when reading this book, so more biologically-minded people might take issue with the portrayal of this issue.) Carr’s personal struggles boil down to the historical dilemma regarding human advancement: is it wrong for Carr to want to be the very best, even if he has illegal genes? If Carr can become the best zeroboxer, why shouldn’t he? Where is the line drawn?

Carr’s dilemma is multiplied a thousandfold in the interplanetary arena. Futuristic, overcrowded Earth—Carr’s home planet—has extensive regulations on gene modification. Terrans both mistrust the idea of tampering with genes and turning people into something “other” than human and fear the power that genetically enhanced individuals would mean on a larger scale. Laws limiting gene therapy and modification prevent both individuals and nations gaining inordinate amounts of power over each other. Such laws are also meant to prevent genetic iterations of institutionalized racism, armed conflicts, and genocide rooted in the belief that certain races are superior to others. On the flip side, Martian colonists have embraced genetic modification to an unparalleled degree both in order to survive. While Martians look down on Terrans as backward and close-minded for their suspicion of gene therapy, Terrans distrust Martians as close to not even human, and see them as lording their growing prosperity over the struggling planet that gave birth to the Martian colonies.

Carr’s discovery of his genetic profile is made worse by what he’s come to symbolize to his Terran fans. Carr’s marketing strategist Risha has spun a compelling, attractive story that casts Carr as the underdog from Earth who worked his way up to be a champion. Carr’s success is meant to prove to Terrans that you don’t have to have good genes to seize opportunities and achieve greatness. (This is not always the case in reality, as seen with Carr’s younger friend Enzo, who has asthma and poor eyesight. His mom can’t afford the gene therapy that would correct these issues, and so Enzo’s medical conditions become neon-bright signs of both Enzo’s genetic deficiencies and his family’s poverty.)

Additionally, the fact that Carr’s dilemma is taking place in the arena of organized sports is incredibly telling. Historically, sports have been enshrined as an equalizing space, in which everyone who enters, no matter their class, race, or background, has the same chances of winning. The only things supposed to matter are skill, hard work, persistence, and a “natural” blessing of talent. When Carr and his fellow Terran zeroboxers go up against genetically modified Martian zeroboxers, they are literally fighting a battle of ideals about the supposed equality of sports arena, and the supposedly equal footing of the players themselves. Carr might see zeroboxing as a simple, clean fight that has nothing to do with politics, but sports have always been connected to national image and political posturing that, regardless of Carr’s personal beliefs on the matter, he is obligated to represent on behalf of the ZGFA and the planet Earth.

So far I’ve been waxing philosophically about Zeroboxer, and possibly giving the impression that the book is all ideas and no action, which would be 100 percent inaccurate. One of the things I love about Zeroboxer is how well Fonda Lee incorporates genes and politics and big-idea concepts into the flow of the action, making them immediately relevant to Carr’s especially immediately relevant zeroboxing matches. The matches themselves were exciting and tense—I am not a sports fan in real life, and I got so pumped reading Carr’s matches. Lee captures the insanity of high-stakes, televised sports match (complete with incessantly-commenting sports newscasters) and channels it into a high-stakes reading experience of the viscerally and physically brutal sport of zeroboxing.

Character-wise, Carr makes for a spot-on protagonist. Ostensibly he’s a simple guy—his entire life revolves around zeroboxing training, his matches, and achieving his goal of being the best. He’s a confident, rough-around-the-edges teenage boy who wants what he wants, but who also cares deeply for his friends, providing for his mom, and living up to the expectations of his coach Uncle Polly, Risha, and the ZGFA. When Carr makes the decision to compete despite his illegal gene profile, he does so knowing he’s carrying the burden not only of his dreams, but his team’s and everyone else’s on Earth, as well as the knowledge that he may eventually be all their dreams’ destruction.

Unfortunately, I do have a major complaint with Zeroboxer, and I’m especially aggravated at having to complain about this because the rest of the book was so excellent—its lack of female characters and the treatment towards the ones that exist. In the entire book, there are only six named female characters, of which Risha is the only one with substantial amounts of page-time, compared to the dozen plus named-and-accounted-for male characters. Aside from Risha, Carr’s mother Sally is written as an unintelligent pushover, Enzo’s mother as a negligent parent who deliberately doesn’t spend the money to fix her son’s genetic deficiencies, Adri as a random zeroboxer (literally the only named female zeroboxer who’s actually a character), and the other two as scene-necessary role-fillers.

As Carr’s personal marketing strategist, Risha is fantastically written as Carr—she’s smart, savvy, and quick on her feet. Much of Carr’s rising status as a Terran sports symbol can be lain at the feet of Risha, which Carr comes to respect and praise her for. He also quickly falls in lust and love with her, and about halfway through, the two of them are in a romantic and sexual relationship.

To be clear, Carr is seventeen-going-on-eighteen, Risha is twenty, and Carr is Risha’s first client. Risha brings up at one point that it would be unprofessional for the two of them to get involved. And yet NO ONE ELSE comments on this, or says it’s a bad idea. Neither Uncle Polly or anyone from the ZGFA says it’s a bad move for a contracted zeroboxer to date his marketing strategist, or a for a marketing strategist to date her client. Even more mind-boggling is that Risha agrees to date Carr at all. It makes no sense why someone who’s so professional in all other capacities would be so unprofessional as to date the guy who is literally her job when she is in the very beginning of her career. Zeroboxer shows no indication of what sexism does or doesn’t look like in this version of the far future, but the entire time I was reading I worried about the potential blowback Risha would receive for “sleeping on the job” as a woman. Not only is the entire set-up of the romance contrived, it feels lazy—similar to other books with a romance plot I’ve reviewed, there is no good reason for romance to exist between Carr and Risha (with the exception of one late-occurring plot point for which I can’t believe an alternate workaround couldn’t have been found.)

(If I’m being fair, Carr’s attraction towards Risha is written with nuance. He starts off just thinking she’s hot but does come to legitimately care for her and want to make her happy. But because the narrative is so tightly trained on Carr, we get nothing on Risha’s end that provides a reasonable explanation for why she decides to date her client.)

The unnecessary, lazy romance combined with the small number of female characters leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth about the overall depiction of women in this book. It’s unclear just how many years in the future Zeroboxer takes place—at least hundreds of years, if not thousands—and yet in that time, the gender parity in organized sports is still as terrible as it is in 2016, and women are mostly present in the wider sports world as marketing staff, family, random extras, and, oh yeah, plot-and-genre-“necessary” romance.

I don’t want to end this review on a bitter note (though I stand by my bitterness on the identified issues.) Zeroboxer ended up being simultaneously exciting, heart-pounding, thoughtful, and heartrending in equal measure. The book blew away my expectations in the strength of Carr’s characterization, the world-building, and the extrapolation of modern-turned-futuristic social and political conflicts regarding the betterment of all humanity. In all those respects, Zeroboxer is a hell of a read, and I recommend it, with caveats.

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