(Audio)Book Talk: YEAR ZERO, by Rob Reid

cover image, YEAR ZERO (via indiebound.org)
Year Zero: A Novel
Rob Reid (Facebook)
Audiobook read by John Hodgman
Del Rey (July 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0345534417 / 9780345534415)
Fiction (SF/speculative), 384 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Random House Audio; Audible ASIN B008J9GD28)
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines: “Aliens suck at music. And it’s not for a lack of trying. They’ve been at it for eons, but have yet to produce even a faintly decent tune. If they had, we’d have detected them eons ago. We’ve been scanning the skies for signs of intelligent life for generations, after all. And we’ve actually picked up thousands of alien anthems, slow dances, and ballads. But the music’s so awful it’s always mistaken for the death rattle of a distant star. It’s seriously that bad.

“Or more accurately–we’re that good. In fact, humanity creates the universe’s best music, by far.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:Low-level entertainment lawyer Nick Carter thinks it’s a prank, not an alien encounter, when a redheaded mullah and a curvaceous nun show up at his office. But Frampton and Carly are highly advanced (if bumbling) extraterrestrials. And boy, do they have news. 

The entire cosmos, they tell him, has been hopelessly hooked on humanity’s music ever since “Year Zero” (1977 to us), when American pop songs first reached alien ears. This addiction has driven a vast intergalactic society to commit the biggest copyright violation since the Big Bang. The resulting fines and penalties have bankrupted the whole universe. We humans suddenly own everything—and the aliens are not amused. 

Nick Carter has just been tapped to clean up this mess before things get ugly, and he’s an unlikely galaxy-hopping hero: He’s scared of heights. He’s also about to be fired. And he happens to have the same name as a Backstreet Boy. But he does know a thing or two about copyright law. And he’s packing a couple of other pencil-pushing superpowers that could come in handy. 

Soon he’s on the run from a sinister parrot and a highly combustible vacuum cleaner. With Carly and Frampton as his guides, Nick now has forty-eight hours to save humanity, while hopefully wowing the hot girl who lives down the hall from him.

Comments: When I received some promo material about Rob Reid’s Year Zero at a publisher event during Book Expo America week last summer, I was initially dismissive–the title made it sound like yet another apocalyptic/dystopian/SF novel, and I’m pretty selective about reading those. When I actually gave the handout some attention weeks later, I discovered that my first impression was way off base–for one thing, it’s more about averting an apocalypse; for another, music plays a big role in the story, and that speaks to my pop-culture nerdiness. But what really sold me was Michelle’s enthusiastic review of Year Zero in audiobook, as read by John Hodgman.

Copyright attorney Nick Carter is stunned by the story he’s told by the brother-sister intergalactic pop stars Frampton and Carly when they arrive unannounced in his office one evening. My recollections of 1977 here on Earth are that it wasn’t an especially significant year for much of anything, but as Carly and Frampton explain to Nick, it was the year that the rest of the universe accidentally discovered our music, and fell wildly, insatiably in love with it. Life throughout the cosmos was redefined by the transformative force of the theme song from Welcome Back, Kotter, and the moment when it was first heard marked a new beginning of time. (Personally, I think maybe we owe the universe an apology, but anyway…) For over three decades, our music has been eagerly consumed across the galaxies, without our knowledge–and without appropriate royalty payments. As the aliens have come to understand the scope of their massive copyright-law violations, they’ve realized that repayment of the debt to Earth’s music industry will basically bankrupt the rest of the universe. Can Nick find a legal loophole…soon enough to foil a plan that would literally blow up the debt, and Earth right along with it?

Rob Reid founded the pioneering online music service Rhapsody.com (still around, did you know?). I’m sure the experience he gained with music licensing and copyright matters there informs the legal angle of Year Zero  but it never hijacks the narrative; this is fortunate, because the “legal” part of “legal thriller” is rarely the “thrilling” part. But in any case, this isn’t a legal thriller anyway–it’s absurdist, satirical science fiction, which reminded me a little of Christopher Moore, and a lot of Douglas Adams. This is by no means a bad thing, as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is the pinnacle and gold standard for absurdist, satirical science fiction. That said, Year Zero is literally more earth- and time-bound; while it’s full of reference points in current technology and popular culture, many are especially likely to click with readers old enough to remember Welcome Back, Kotter.

I’m glad I knew going in that Year Zero wasn’t yet another apocalyptic/dystopian/SF novel, but I didn’t know just how funny it would be. I laughed a lot while listening to this one. I didn’t love every single character voice John Hodgman used here, but his narration was excellent overall, and I thought he was a fine match for the material. The door was left open for a Year Zero sequel–but since Reid has already written a completely unrelated book called Year One, the title might need to go off in another direction–and there’s a good chance I’ll be back for it.

Rating: Book 3.75 / 5, Audio 4 / 5
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