Don’t be evil. It’s the epigraph of David Yoon’s new satirical tech thriller, Version Zero. Yoon cites the quote as an “Internet proverb,” though it’s actually taken from the corporate code of conduct at Google. As our lives have shifted onto the Internet, we become ever more reliant on the hope that Google—and the other giant tech companies that rule the world—will keep their promise to not be evil. Spoiler: They broke that promise a long time ago.
Enter Wren, the Facebook-Twitter megasite that rules Silicon Valley in Version Zero. Wren is definitely evil, but its 3 billion users don’t know it—or maybe they’re just so addicted to posting that they’ve decided not to pay attention. When Max, a tech whiz working at Wren, learns more than he wanted to know about Wren’s plans for its users’ data, he tries to do something about it. But once he’s taken the first step against Wren, it’s hard to stop. Soon, Max and his friends find themselves embroiled in an enormous conspiracy. As they join forces with a reclusive tech baron with secrets of his own, they start to worry their plans have more to do with avenging personal grievances than with protecting Wren’s userbase.
Version Zero is an ambitious departure for Yoon, the author of the young adult novels Frankly in Love and Super Fake Love Song. Version Zero is more like Dave Eggers’ The Circle than a YA romantic comedy—although it’s still lightning-fast and laugh-out-loud funny, with a romantic subplot thrown in for good measure. Yoon worked in tech for years, and it’s clear he’s troubled by what social media is doing to the world. Version Zero, his first book for adults, asks a lot of tricky questions: How much power do the Facebooks and Twitters of the world have over us? Would we take it away from them, even if we could? Has our extremely-online society passed the point of no return?
Most of those questions have no good answer—and the way things turn out for Max and his friends make me think Yoon isn’t optimistic about our future. But he turns those anxieties into a sharp, funny satire, addictive and easy to read. Like a George Saunders story, Version Zero straddles the line between realistic fiction and dystopia, with characters that seem to exist in an alternate universe just adjacent to our own. The websites that run that universe might have different names—Wren instead of Twitter, Knowned instead of Reddit, Quartz instead of Apple—but the threat is always the same.
Version Zero by David Yoon was published on May 25, 2021.