Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Year Zero by Rob Reid

According to Year Zero by Rob Reid, it turns out that there are many sentient life forms in the universe, and all of them are terrible at music – except one species. Humans. Us. Other brilliant and peaceful species in the universe have formed a confederation called the Refined League (Earthlings have not yet been invited to join), and members of the Refined League value music as the highest of the 40 identified “Noble Arts.”

One day a few years ago some alien anthropologists eavesdropping on Earth heard their first music created by humans. And rhapsodic joy swept the cosmos. Human music was so much better than any music ever heard elsewhere in the galaxy that many aliens died from forgetting to eat while replaying the theme song. The Refined League was so moved by the discovery of human music that they begin counting time anew from the moment of the discovery, and that moment became Year Zero. And the song that inspired such exaltation and respect? The theme song to the television show Welcome Back, Kotter.

If that last sentence made you laugh, or even smile, than you will probably enjoy Year Zero, a kind of Men in Black meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a very funny take on human society through the eyes of young lawyer Nick Carter, a peon in a law firm specializing in copyrights and patents. He is in his office late one night when his assistant announces the arrival of two strange visitors. They are aliens trying to arrange for a license for all of humanity’s music. It turns out the Refined League has strict rules about following the laws of primitive societies like ours, and as aliens have been illegally downloading billions of copies of our music since the 1970s, they now owe us all the wealth in the universe. There are other aliens who figure it would be far easier, and far less expensive, to destroy the Earth instead.

Fortunately for Nick, the aliens mistake him not only for the founder of the law firm (now retired), but also for the Backstreet Boy by the same name. The interaction between the characters is great, and Nick is a likeable and totally believable guy. (At one point, the author spends half a page describing Nick’s thought process as he types up a brief text message to the girl he likes, so that it will sound friendly but not goofy, enthusiastic but not dorky.) Year Zero has references to other sci fi/fantasy series, but they are not overwhelming the way I’ve found them in some books. Year Zero also contains a wise-cracking sentient alien parrot and his sidekick, a sentient alien vacuum cleaner.

Author Reid offers a satirical look at the music industry, music piracy and the U.S. legal system. He takes many pokes at Windows, Microsoft, and Bill Gates. (“I twisted my fingers to hit the CTRL, ALT, and DEL keys – a gesture I associate so strongly with both annoyance and panic that my hand now reflexively makes it when I’m caught in traffic, stuck in a long line, flying in extreme turbulence – you name it.”) When Nick and a friend have trouble with an alien interface on a computer, the computer switches to a “native” interface that turns out to be Clippy from Microsoft Office (and no desperate act will make Clippy go away).

I completely enjoyed Year Zero, and I’m not even a big music fan. It’s funny and well written, and it moves at a great pace. I highly recommend it.

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