Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee
Carr Luka is a rising star in the future sport of “zeroboxing” – basically MMA fighting in zero gravity. As he continues to succeed, his league invests in him – getting a brandhelm (brand manager) for him and sending him on a marketing tour. But, as his star rises, he also learns a dark secret about a deeply hidden crime-ring. In the middle of fighting his way to the top, Carr also becomes the lightning rod for tensions between people still living on Earth and the populations that have chosen to spread across the solar system.
Carr’s attraction to Risha is immediate and fairly superficial at first. The physical attraction is written well, but it’s a little hard to see why the relationship grows into anything more. While Risha seems to be driven by her career, she also has no qualms mixing business and pleasure and I found that slightly confusing. But, she’s also young and she spends most of her time with Carr, so I understand why this unfolds. While their relationship felt natural and Carr’s excitement about it came across as genuine, I feel a little surprised at the depth of their feelings by the end.
There are a few things that stand out: Carr likes girls and he likes to have fun with girls, so there’s some disrespectful “let’s find girls for fun” talk among other zeroboxers. Carr’s first interest toward Risha is all about her appearance (and he calls her “exotic” several times which made me feel gross), but he does eventually come around and appreciate her for her personality and skill. Risha’s story is intriguing – I was really interested by her position between the Earth-born and the Martians and I wish that story had been expanded on a bit. And, while it’s obvious that she’s very good at her job, we only see her in the “taking care of Carr” aspect of it and that was a little disappointing.
In addition, the other two main female characters are two mothers -Carr’s and Enzo’s- making dubious choices. Carr’s mother highlights the difficult position of women in poverty – they have few choices and often those choices are between “Bad” and “Really Bad.” I appreciate that, but it’s still disappointing to have another struggling mother/woman making choices story. And, Enzo’s mother is another common storyline – a poor woman that cares more about her next hit than about her child. Of course, these kinds of characters exist in real life and Carr’s childhood is part of what inspires him to succeed, but I still wish the lady characters rotated a little less around the men and had a little more strength among them.
There’s a lot of diversity among the zeroboxers – denoted by name when not by outright description of their families and backgrounds. There isn’t the same kind of clear distinctions we might expect from a present-day story since much of the population and national borders seem to have melted in Carr’s time, but there’s still skin color and ethnic variation among the Earth-born population.
More importantly, there is a clear demarcation between Martian/outerspace populations and Earth-borns. Throughout the story, we see the tensions between the two groups growing and this culminates at the same time as Carr’s personal story. I REALLY wish this part of the plot had expanded, because I find it a fascinating way to explore the perceptions of difference and how we (today) determine who is in- and out-group. I was really disappointed about where the story ended because I was incredibly anxious to see what would happen after the big revelation (I would love to see Carr’s world 5, 10, and 20 years out from his big fight!).
I found the idea of zeroboxing really interesting and I liked Carr’s character – he was a good mix of earnestness, emotion, and teenage boy – we got the action and drive while still sympathizing with him. I also appreciated the complexity of his position and thought this was a great way to explore identity and politics while still having some intense, awesome fight scenes. A few times during the fights, I got breathless wondering what punch or kick was going to come next, so you know Lee can write some action!
Uncle Polly – how can you not love the dedicated old coach with grit and just enough tenderheartedness to earn his athlete’s respect and love? I also appreciated his struggle to come to terms with the secret.
“Victory was a better high than a hundred bliss bombs. Perfect and real, lasting for days, even weeks, before being polished and stored in its own special nook of his soul, each win unique and everlasting, wanting nothing except more neighbors.” (79)
This is exactly how the best days of life get stored in our souls (also, reminds me of Inside Out and the core memories).
Is this worth a book hangover?
YES! I started this and struggled to put it down for bed. I took it on the metro and almost missed my stop. There’s a ton of action and it really does feel like a cage fight is happening in front of you.
Fun Author Fact
Fonda Lee once wrote a book on a graphing calculator. ‘Nuff said.
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