YEAR ZERO: A NOVEL – review by Dan Hope[dropdown_box expand_text=”Dan” show_more=”More About” show_less=”Less About” start=”hide”]Dan Hope, or the BSR as we call him, is Fiction Vortex’s resident sci-fi go to guy. Whether he is writing or reading it, sci-fi is his thing. Even if it is about space cows. Read more about Dan here. [/dropdown_box]
Perhaps you think you don’t need a book in your life that combines sentient parrot villains, music piracy on a galactic scale, scrapbooking that will literally melt your mind, and a reality TV star dressed as a sexy nun, but you do.
And Year Zero: A Novel, by Rob Reid, has all those things.
Year Zero is a breath of fresh air in the science fiction market. Aside from Scalzi’s Redshirts, there aren’t many humorous science fiction novels being published lately. Make no mistake, Year Zero’s primary goal is to be a humorous novel, and the science fiction is more set dressing. In fact, one of its faults is that at times it feels like it’s trying too hard to be funny. But we shouldn’t punish the book for such a minor transgression, especially when the majority of it is genuinely funny.
Year Zero follows Nick Carter, a struggling lawyer at one of the biggest firms in New York. If his name made you think of a particular member of the Backstreet Boys, you’re not alone. Some music-loving aliens make the same mistake.
In fact, the entire galaxy loves human music. Billions of species in the galaxy are superior to us in every way but one: Their music is terrible. Since they first picked up the theme song to a sitcom broadcasted into space back in the 70s, aliens have been recording and sharing all the music they could get from little old planet Earth.
Until they found out that it’s illegal.
That’s right, just like the hacker down the street, the unprincipled teens in your local high school, and your mother, aliens are guilty of music piracy. Thanks to stringent rules about honoring the laws of primitive species, every civilization in the known universe owes us a lot of money. All of it, in fact. This has made many aliens mad, and more than a few have decided that it would just be easier to make the problem, namely humans, go away. Carter must do some of the most creative lawyering of his life in order to save Earth and settle the biggest potential lawsuit in the galaxy amicably.
Patent law and music piracy litigation isn’t exactly the most exciting plot device in the science fiction canon, and Year Zero seems to labor under this weight at times. But it’s a fresh idea, and Reid deserves praise for making it interesting and simple enough to understand. However, in some places, especially the end, the details can get a bit tedious and manage to slow down the otherwise fast pace of the novel. At least Reid, who is a former entrepreneur in the music business, is very familiar with the subject, and his expertise helps make sense of such complex legalese.
It’s very tempting to compare Year Zero to the most famous example of humorous sci-fi: Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Both involve an underdog protagonist who is swept off the planet and gets tangled up in intergalactic hijinks. In some ways, the humor feels as manic and random as Hitchhiker’s, but it’s oh-so-different in other ways. While Douglas Adams wrote something that felt like it could fit in any decade, the satire and wit in Year Zero is very in the now. Painfully so, at times. Reid relies heavily on allusions to songs and pop-stars that are funny, but probably won’t age well. And for someone who didn’t come of age in the 80s or 90s, much of it will be hard to decipher. The upshot, on the other hand, is that music lovers and pop culture aficionados will find tons of quips and easter eggs seemingly made just for them.
The pace of the novel is quick and it has some very steady beats until near the end. When a book takes you across the universe to spend time with weird and hilarious extraterrestrials, it feels like hitting a speedbump to settle down at the end and resolve a conflict centered around legal interpretations of the law.
Despite these minor hiccups, Year Zero is still a good read and an easy sell. It is just the right kind of zany, often inventive, and does an excellent job of satirizing the particular brand of crazy we call modern life (and the particular legal insanity thereof).
We need more of this. Not necessarily a sequel, I mean, but more humorous fiction. I recommend reading this book for its own merits, but also in the hope that strong sales for Year Zero will mean a market more friendly to humorous sci-fi in the future. If anything, the future will be just too absurd to take seriously, and that’s no fiction.