[18 October 2012]
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see Superman II on the big screen at a local specialty movie theatre – I’d never seen it, not as a kid, so it was an opportunity to pretend that I was an eight-year-old all over again and was enjoying something for the very first time. I couldn’t help, however, but have the following thought when I was watching it: how is it that Superman and General Zod (and so on) look human and manage to speak English as their primary dialect when they are, in fact, aliens from another planet? Shouldn’t they be green with oversized heads, and speak nothing but gibberish?
Well, you don’t have to suspend disbelief quite so willfully when reading Rob Reid’s debut science-fiction/humour novel Year Zero: aliens, it turns out, come in all sort of shapes and sizes. They can look remarkably almost human, or they can look like Dyson vacuum cleaners, or even sporks. And they happen to know English fluently from watching our TV shows and movies and, more especially, from listening to our music. So you can kind of swallow the whoppers Reid unleashes in this howler of a novel – one that I was practically glued to as I read it; I just couldn’t put it down – because he grounds certain aspects of the science part of his fiction in at least a feasible explanation, even if that explanation is also quite humourous. Humour works in Reid’s favour here as Year Zero is essentially one long screed against greed in the music business, particularly when it comes to music piracy and copyright infringement.
Reid is well suited to talk about piracy in his novel, as he is actually the founder of Listen.com, which created the Rhapsody service, which in turn was the world’s largest seller of online music until a little thing known as iTunes from Apple came along and supplanted it. Being someone who tried to legitimize the selling of music on the Internet gives him a great deal of credibility and insight into the murky world of copyright law. But who knew that Reid had something as deliciously funny and fun as Year Zero within him? The novel is so well tuned that you forget that he was actually a music executive in a past life, since writing seems to come so naturally to him.
Year Zero is actually a music geek’s and pop culture lover’s dream – making it this year’s Ready Player One, if not a quite such a pessimistic version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – that is rife with all sorts of references to artists and performers of various cheesiness. You even have to wonder if the title is an allusion to a certain Nine Inch Nails album. Year Zero is simply wall-to-wall, not only in zaniness, but with satirical targets against those within the music business – but all in good nature. You’ll zip through these pages at hyper-speed, enjoying all the side journeys and amusing anecdotes about various artists or life in the music industry in general.
Year Zero has a lot going on in terms of plot, with all sorts of crosses and double crosses happening in warp drive. You actually sort of have to turn your mind off and just simply enjoy the ride, the sheer wackiness of it all, because thinking about it too much will make your head hurt. However, if one was to sum up the general premise of the book, it goes something like this: in the year 1977 (known as “year zero”), alien beings actually stumble upon and discover Earth music when they hear the theme song to Welcome Back, Kotter as written by John Sebastian, ex of the ‘60s pop group the Lovin’ Spoonful. It turns out that Earth music is so good, comparatively to the music produced by various alien civilizations, that the aliens zone out and are almost hypnotized by the sounds they’re hearing. This leads to widescale copying and distribution of Earth’s songs throughout the entire galaxy (and probably even beyond).
However, the aliens – who are faithful to respecting the laws and customs of the civilizations they’re plundering from – come to their senses a few decades later and eventually realize that their swapping of Earth’s music has lead them to violate certain copyright acts, particularly those based in the United States, leaving these aliens on the hook for paying out an obscene amount of money. (As Reid points out, the average cost for distributing pirated material comes out to $150,000 per person – or, well, being – per song, so if you multiple this across the entire universe and realize that the aliens are packing every song a human has recorded in their versions of an iPod – well, that’s a lot of money.) One solution to this sudden realization that the aliens are now in a state of perpetual bankruptcy is to encourage the planet Earth along to self-destruction (since it is against alien rule to actually destroy it singlehandedly).
These leads two other human-looking aliens named Carly (a reference to Carly Simon, who was particularly popular with the song “Nobody Does It Better” in 1977?) and Frampton (a reference to Peter Frampton, who, in 1977, was enjoying massive success with his Frampton Comes Alive live album?) to enlist in the services of New York-bound copyright lawyer Nick Carter (who, yes, shares his name with a particular member of the Backstreet Boys) to come up with a solution that would allow the aliens to erase their debt, thus saving Earth in the process.
In essence, Reid is kind of poking fun at the fact that many contracts from media companies now have clauses that grab hold of the rights to copyrighted work in all of perpetuity across the universe. (And yes, there is language such as this in some legal documents. I know. I actually signed a contract, and I wish I hadn’t, with one major newspaper in Canada that wanted the rights to my work as a freelancer on precisely those sorts of conditions.)
There’s a level of irony at work in Year Zero. Reid seems to think that alien civilizations would be transfixed by bad music – so bad that it is actually good? – as the aliens make the jump from the Kotter theme song to Olivia Newton-John and then Billy Joel, before getting to stuff that is marginally more respectable. I can appreciate the attempt at humor, but you know, Billy Joel actually does have the odd good song – I find his The Stranger album, released in, um, 1977, is actually something of a guilty pleasure – and I also think that the Welcome Back, Kotter theme is a superlative example of TV songs. There’s a certain melancholy in the piece that makes it a time capsule for the recessionary feel of New York City in the late ‘70s that was pretty tapped into and distilled by Sebastian.
Still, I guess Reid is just riffing on something most people will find a bit amusing – perhaps he feels that most people will now look back on “Welcome Back” as an inconsequential piece of fluff belonging to a certain era. I can go along with that, because Reid’s insight into the machinations of the greed of the music world is essentially what makes this book so darn amusing, if not the baffling choices of what songs or artists become truly popular with the masses.
A lot of what Reid has to say won’t exactly new or novel to many readers, but it’s still sobering to hear (crouched as it is in comedy). As Reid points out in mid-novel, the record labels have always had a hissy fit when a new medium, such as radio or MTV, comes along because the media is using the record company content for free, nevermind the fact that these outlets have, at their respective times, reinvigorated youth culture and have profoundly rewarded record company coffers in other ways. Reid also points out that the record companies tend to keep lawmakers on a leash as much as they legally can, and then, when the careers of these politicians in government are over, hire them at inflated salaries just to reward them for their past services. It’s just little insights like this that make the book so rewarding, even if they’re presented as being knee-slappers because they seem to be just so damn absurd.
However, most people will probably just lie back reading this and enjoy the dazzling array of pop cultural references that Reid jams into his narrative, including this screamingly side-splitting joke about a league of ticked-off aliens on the offensive against the novel’s antagonists that made me nearly drop the book as I was reading it: “It was as if a giant clan of pint-sized linebackers had just heard that their kid sister was at the junior high school dance with R. Kelly.” Hilarious!
All in all, Year Zero isn’t a work of literary fiction, and I found that it is sometimes a little too jokey for its own good – there are jokes hidden in footnotes in the pages, but I’d be damned if I didn’t miss a few asterisks in the main body of the text telling you to look to the bottom of the page (not to mention that Reid, at least at one point, piles on a footnote within a footnote for comedic effect). However, it’s a breezy, frothy piece of humourous science-fiction that would do the late Douglas Adams proud.
It also serves as a timely reminder, even as services such as iTunes are now more or less legitimizing the way most people find music on the Internet, at just how insane and logic-defying the fight against music piracy can sometimes be: do the major record labels really intend to recoup their losses from file sharing by bankrupting individuals many times over? At once, Year Zero is still quite the topical book, and one that should be savoured and enjoyed by as many music lovers and geeks as possible. It’s just such a crackling, good, quick read that is so enjoyable, your sides might wind up hurting from laughing while reading it. And you’ll never have to suspend your disbelief, sadly, that someone out there, right now, is probably looking into ways to sue all the little green men everywhere, for all eternity.