1855 A ‘careful and nuanced approach to dystopia’

Camp Zero
by Michelle Min Sterling

Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2023
$26.00 / 9781039005273

Reviewed by Zoe McKenna


Vancouver Island-born writer Michelle Min Sterling’s debut novel Camp Zero opens in a barren landscape on the shortest day of the year. 

It’s 2049, and the temperatures are rising. The United States is unbearably hot and the country is riddled with wildfires. The rich escape to off-shore communities known as Floating Cities, while the poor are forced to endure the climate crisis, or be labeled as “nation-dodgers” as they attempt to escape to cooler, quieter communities in Canada, like Dominion Lake. 

Once a booming oil town, Dominion Lake stands almost empty in the aftermath of fossil fuels being criminalized. Meyer, a visionary architect responsible for some of the most extravagant projects in the Floating Cities, is leading the development of a college, and his project draws Sterling’s cast of characters to the desolate North. 

Rose is a sex worker, known as “a Bloom,” and a member of Meyer’s brothel. A recent graduate of a prestigious university, Grant is ready to serve as Camp Zero’s English tutor. The Diggers and the Foreman are responsible for the project’s labour, while an expedition of women researchers and scientists occupy a nearby science station called White Alice. 

Rose knows before she arrives that all is not what it seems at Meyer’s camp. While promises of a college campus and resulting community make their way down the grapevine, Rose has spent years working at The Loop — a “boutique” community for the very wealthy and those who serve them — and knows all too well that something more valuable than a post-secondary education must be driving the activity in Dominion Lake. In exchange for security and support for her immigrant mother, Rose agrees to travel into Camp Zero to attempt to learn what Meyer is hoping The Diggers will uncover below ground. 

Upon reaching Camp Zero, Grant expects to be met with a constructed college, but finds Meyer behind schedule. Instead of a campus, Grant is placed in a “boxy warehouse” where the camp cook is making stew from an unknown animal. While far from his expectations, Grant’s purpose in the camp has less to do with the literary canon than with establishing as much distance as possible between himself and his father, even if that means disappearing into the snow. 

Sterling brings a sorrowing familiarity with wildfires and other signposts of the climate crisis to her novel. Characters come to expect “blackened forests” and to comb ash from their hair, and it takes little reflection about the East Coast’s yellow skies or British Columbia’s recent familiarity with pink suns to know where Sterling finds inspiration.

Both Rose and Grant’s presence at the Camp outline a troubling throughline of Sterling’s narrative: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Three decades in the future, the rich are afforded immense luxuries while the poor are left to find a means to survive and women are positioned as objects, inferior to men: “Men are consolidating power, as they have been since the beginning of time.” 

Author Michelle Min Sterling

Sterling deftly avoids writing Rose into the trope of “strong female character,” offering her depth and intrigue in both her backstory and personality. Rose is rarely predictable, as her complex  relationships with various members of the camp demonstrate. The other Blooms fall flat in comparison, easily melting into one another with how little attention they’re afforded. 

Similarly, Sterling weaves a curious piece of technology into the novel called The Flick. The Flick, implanted into the head of the user, allows for browsing and scrolling in an even more insidious way than cell phones do today. Upon reaching Dominion Lake, Rose is stripped of The Flick, which is non-functional in the North. Rose is forced to confront Dominion Lake without the comfort or convenience of The Flick, while reckoning with the space behind her ear it leaves behind. The result is an intriguing and haunting plot line that remains under-utilized throughout the novel, but with the potential to be a dystopian tale all to itself.  

Camp Zero proceeds at a steady pace until it nears its end, at which point timelines converge and plotting grows hazy. In the race to the finish, the stakes are pushed to the side in favour of twists and turns that leave readers disoriented in the Northern wilderness. Flashbacks and memories become more frequent, and the present timeline is lost in the mix. 

In the chapters focussed on White Alice, Sterling plays more freely with timelines; these interjections into the main plot bring a notably science fiction element to the story. Yet as the novel scrambles to a close, these chapters become difficult to follow. As with The Flick, it feels as if the short chapters about White Alice have immense untapped potential that could be explored in a full-length piece of their own. 

Despite these stumbles, Camp Zero offers a worthwhile endeavour into the intersections of environmentalism and identity. Sterling is brimming with insights into our relationship with the warming world and crafts a compelling cast of characters to bring these ideas to life. Rather than recycling perspectives or repeating popular storylines, Sterling demonstrates a careful and nuanced approach to dystopia—one that is as comprehensive as it is creative. 

In many ways, Camp Zero’s bewildering ending is the only appropriate way to conclude a novel that so closely reflects the challenges of our current world. As smoky skies make clear, we’re living in a climate emergency. How it will unfold still lies in front of us. 


Zoe McKenna

Zoe McKenna recently completed her Master of Arts from the University of Victoria and also holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vancouver Island University. Her thesis, as well as a great deal of her other reading and writing, focuses on horror writing in Canada, especially that by BIPOC authors. Her previous work has appeared in VIU’s Portal Magazine and the Quill & Quire. When not reading, writing, or reviewing, Zoe can be found hiking a local mountain or in front of a movie with her two cats, Florence and Delilah. She is always covered in cat hair and wears almost exclusively dark clothing to prove it. Find her on Twitter. Editor’s note: Zoe McKenna has recently reviewed books by Eve Lazarus, David Wallace, David Ly & Daniel ZomparelliSophie Sullivankc dyerRobyn Harding, and Lindsay Cameron for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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