Rob Reid started Rhapsody, a music service, back during the Napster era. So he obviously knows and cares a lot about electronic music, and the madness of the record industry. This comes through, often hilariously, in his new novel Year Zero, in which aliens discover they've been pirating so much of our music, they owe us all their wealth.
Year Zero is being compared to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which isn't really a fair comparison at all. It's more like a goofy science fiction spoof along the lines of A. Lee Martinez — and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. The book becomes noticeably cleverer, and more entertaining, on those occasions where it wades into the lunacy of the music industry, its symbiotic relationship with Washington, and the complete brain-deadness of copyright law.
We ran the book trailer for Year Zero a while back, and it explains the plot pretty well. In a nutshell, the universe is full of advanced civilizations, which belong to something called the Refined League — and when they discovered Earth music in the late 1970s, they became obsessed with it, collecting every bit of Earth music they could find. They spent a few decades listening to every single bit of pop music recorded on Earth, in total ecstasy, until they realized that they owed us untold zillions of dollars in penalties for pirating our music under our insanely strict anti-piracy laws. Now it's up to an attorney named Nick to figure out a solution, before some aliens decide to destroy the Earth to get out of owing us all that money.
It's a neat set-up for a book, and Reid works it pretty well. Where Year Zero shines is in contrasting a ludicrously over-the-top set of aliens with the actual, real-life ludicrousness of the musical-political complex. Reid has clearly suffered through a lot of horrible meetings with music people, and dealt with more than his fair share of sharky industry lawyers, and when he turns his attention to skewering the people who try to demand a king's ransom for the mp3s on your ipod, he's at the top of his game.
And if you enjoy a jaunt through absurdity — both reality-based and entirely made up — then you'll get a kick out of the relentless silliness of Year Zero, in which our young feckless hero is bounced around from alien planet to alien planet, with a healthy amount of music industry shenanigans in between. If you miss a decent amount of silliness and zaniness in your science fiction, then this book will cheer you up tremendously.
There are some genuinely clever science fictional twists built in to the story, particularly about the ways in which the aliens go about copying and sharing human music, and some of the author's lectures about the music industry are quite bracing. Like this passage:
The industry has tens, even hundreds of thousands of bickering, autonomous players. A few major labels, hundreds of mid-level players, and countless ankle-biters. It would be impossible to get that many people and entities to agree on anything, even if they were all level-headed, smart, and decisive. And the captains of the music industry are none of the above. Level-headed? They still think they can wish (or sue) the Internet away despite a decade and a half of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Smart? They pay my firm millions a year to fight that doomed battle, when no number of lawsuits or Judiciary Committee perversions could really delay the arrival of The Future by one nanosecond.
And as for decisive, these people are clinically paralyzed by ignorance, arrogance, politics, bureaucracy and, above all else, fear — fear of doing the wrong thing. And it's not just fear of hurting themselves that has them hamstrung. No — what brings on the night sweats is their fear of doing something that might inadvertently benefit someone they hate. And this is a real risk, because the giant music execs seem to hate everyone their businesses touch. They hate each other, for one thing. And boy, do they hate the musicians (spoiled druggie narcissists!) They certainly hate the radio stations that basically advertise their music for free (too much power, the bastards!) And they loathe the online music industry (thieving geek bastards!) They hated the music retailers, back when they still existed (the bastards took too much margin!) They hate the Walmart folks, who account for most of what's left of physical CD sales (red state Nazi cheapskates!) They've always hated the concert industry (we should be getting that money!) And they all but despise the music-buying public (thieves! they're all a bunch of down-loading geek bastard thieving-ass thieves!)
The impossibility of getting the music industry to let go of its supposedly rightful fines and penalties — even if the alternative is the destruction of the entire planet — drives a lot of the comedy in the book. And most geeks, who have followed the wranglings over just how heavy-handed the regulation of the internet should be, will find a lot to chortle at in this book.
And on a deeper level, there are some interesting ideas in there about the commodification of music, and what it means when music can be turned into infinitely shareable pieces of data — including some pretty clever stuff towards the end. At the same time, the notion that aesthetic pleasure can actually overwhelm your senses, and that culture can change people as much as technology is explored in a compelling fashion at times.
A lot of the time, the book functions as a tour of zany alien races that Reid made up, some of which are clever and interesting in a Gulliver's Travels sort of way. And some of which are just zany — hey, there's an alien that looks just like a parrot! And another alien that looks just like a vacuum cleaner! This is mixed in with lots and lots of exposition. A decent amount of the exposition is really funny — but it's still nakedly exposition, and since the book is written in the first person apart from a prologue and the main character is a babe in the woods, it's delivered in the form of characters telling each other things. (There's a reason why Hitchhiker's isn't narrated by Arthur Dent in the first person.)
And at times, Reid takes aim at some pretty soft targets — like, say, reality TV. Isn't reality TV silly? Why, yes. It is.
But when Year Zero is firing on all thrusters, it's as a satire of the music industry and as a journey into the heart of absurdity — in which we discover no matter how advanced alien cultures get, they still act like goons when it comes to music and intellectual property law. It's also a zippy novel in which a young protagonist who seems doomed to mediocrity gets chosen to save the world and get the girl and all that, and he turns out to be pretty resourceful. All in all, it's a supremely fun read which will remind you how much you love science fiction comedy — and how much you hate the music industry.