In 1999, I was a freshman in college at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We Gauchos have a bit of reputation, but I think that first year more students spent time indoors that ever before. We were in the midst of the file sharing revolution and I was at ground zero.
A lot of files were shared that year from music to movies to games. Napster was catching fire, but for the lazy college student it was as easy as peeking into another’s public folders and grabbing what caught the eye. I don’t think most understood what they were doing. It was the Wild Wild West back then, long before the narrative of intellectual property theft began in the public eye. Nevertheless, in Rob Reid’s Year Zero, they’d be in the same dicey position as the universe’s non-Earth population. That is to say, in a severe legal conundrum as it relates to copyright law.
Low-level entertainment lawyer Nick Carter thinks it’s a prank, not an alien encounter, when two extraterrestrials show up in his office. The entire cosmos, they tell him, has been functionally addicted to humanity’s music since 1977, when American pop songs first reached the stars. As a result, intergalactic society has committed the biggest copyright violation in history, bankrupting the entire universe. Sure, they tried to stop, but:
“Normal reactions to Rickrolls range from eye rolls to ironic sing-alongs. But my visitors started trembling, almost convulsing. And as they clung to their chairs for support, they took on an ecstatic air that was almost smutty.”
Obviously, they need legal advice and fast. Who better than a Backstreet Boy turned copyright expert? Oh… he’s not the Nick Carter?
That statement alone offers quite a bit of insight into the kind of novel Reid has written. Sold as the new Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, driven by its status as a funny science fiction novel, I find little in common between the two. Reid’s humor is biting, and grounded almost exclusively in today’s pop culture where Douglas Adams’ was silly, timeless, and (if I may say) British. For me that makes Year Zero exponentially more funny, although fifty years from now I’m not sure the same will hold true. Lines like this bring that home:
“But they just have to get up there and mime it to a famous recording, and the crowds go nuts (catch a Britney Spears show to see something similar here at home).”
Laughing from start to finish, I also found myself genuinely invested in the plot. Carter, his love interest, his hard-ass boss, and the strange aliens who reach out for help, are all well drawn. They move through a plot that makes sense and has a natural pace that doesn’t get lost in its own comedic meanderings, another fact that distinguishes it from its classic comparative.
In that way I find quite a bit of John Scalzi in Reid’s style, but without the endless font of sarcastic characters that pervade Scalzi’s work. That’s accomplished by Reid’s use of the narrative voice for his humor (aided by a first person narrator no doubt) allowing his characters to exist organically as opposed to the joke delivery devices I find many of Scalzi’s characters to be.
In the background, Reid builds a workable commentary on the state of copyright law as it relates to the music business and intellectual property in general.
“…music licensing is an arcane thicket of ambiguity, overlapping jurisdictions, and litigation. This is a disastrous situation for musicians, as well as for music fans and countless businesses. In fact, it suits absolutely nobody — apart from the cynical lawyers who run the music labels, the lobbying groups, the House, the Senate, and several parasite law firms like my own.”
He often points out the unique nature of the penalties associated with copyright law and the disincentive within the system to change them. Many of these are included as footnotes that allow the author to break out the more important educational details that would impeach any sort of consistent narrative voice. Reid sometimes attempts to expand into the realm of political commentary, although I didn’t find those moments quite as successful.
Reid’s background contributes to these aspects of the novel, echoing the age old advice to write what you know. Sole founder of the online music company Listen.com, which in 2001 launched Rhapsody, as well as a founding member of IGN Entertainment, Reid has been a unique figure in the music business — one fundamentally connected to the internet and other forms of entertainment. Subsequently, he’s become a vocal spokesperson for change, highlighted by his presentation TED this year where he explained his idea of “copyright math”, which was clearly the germ that gave birth to Year Zero.
And what a beautiful zygote it is. Rob Reid has struck a nerve with Year Zero that will resonate with anyone who lived through the music internet revolution in the same way that Scalzi’s Redshirts does with science fiction television fans. It lives and breathes the absurdity of copyright law, while simultaneously recognizing the importance of protecting artists’ rights. It’s also the funniest piece of fiction I’ve ever read and will almost surely be one of the five best novels I read this year. I would suggest acquiring a legal copy at the earliest convenience. Trust me, you’ll want nothing to do with violating copyrights after finishing it.