Why not finish out 2015 by reading a book called Year Zero? I was ambivalent about this one, and I figured this for a win–win proposition. Either I love it, so my year ends with a bang; or I hate it, but if so, then there’s always next year! I was correct—and I’m coming down on the “hate it” side. So here’s to 2016: a brand new year for reading! But first, let’s sweep away this year with one last scathing review!
The warning signs for Year Zero start early. The prologue, Chapter Zero, is a neutron-star–dense cludge of exposition dropping us into this universe, where the universe’s civilizations are enthralled by humanity’s music but, because they are bound to respect our laws, are now guilty of copyright infringement and owe us ALL THE MONEY in statutory fines. It’s a stupid premise—and I’m OK with that. I appreciate that Rob Reid is trying to poke fun at a subject we normally consider dry and uninteresting, even though it’s super important. The cover copy of this book tries to liken it to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is sacrilege and inaccurate. And it’s clear that Year Zero is trying to be a hip, zany-but-compelling critique of the music business and the absurdity of (American) copyright laws. Yet it is just so poorly written (and edited) that it falls short of even the most generous expectations I might set for it.
The prologue is short; I’ll give it that. If it were the only example of egregious exposition, then I might be able to move past it. But the infodumping really only gets worse from there. When Nick Carter, our hero, meets his first aliens, he naturally has lots of questions. And so most of the scenes are question-and-answer dialogues that lead us down increasingly convoluted rabbit-holes replete with pop culture references that might have been relevant and interesting in the nineties but just feel tired now. Nick periodically pauses to curse out Windows (and the last chapter is devoted, in a sad digression, almost entirely to that), and Reid alludes to Clippy, the Backstreet Boys, Brittney Spears … for a book from 2012, it feels dated almost instantly.
Meanwhile, between the constant, unwanted stream of information and the dated pop culture references, keeping track of the high-concept plot becomes an unwieldy proposition. There’s a reason why law shows focus on the drama among lawyers and their minions and courtroom scenes are unrealistically presented: real-life law can be boring. It’s tedious and dull. And the legal parts of Year Zero are exactly that. The moment Nick or someone else starts talking about the law, my eyes begin to glaze over. It doesn’t help that Reid belongs to the select group of people who think that footnotes are funny or somehow add something to a novel. (Full disclosure: I was briefly one of those people one summer in 2006, but I was also 16, so I feel like I have a bit of an excuse.) While they might have a claim to being more appropriate given the law motifs of the book, the footnotes are universally unfunny and forgettable; indeed, they are simply another excuse to shove more “facts” at us and more irrelevant names and dates.
I get the feeling that Reid is just trying so hard to be funny with every single page, as if the sheer volume of humour contained within the story might somehow make people care about copyright reform. Now, I already care about copyright reform, and I actually completely agree with some of Reid’s real-life positions on the absurd nature of these infringement laws. So maybe it’s a case of preaching to the choir, but this book neither made me laugh nor made me care about copyright.
There was one set of remarks I found both genuinely hilarious and thought-provoking. Reid has Nick comment on how the executives in the music industry seem to hate everyone who helps them make money:
And as for decisive, these people are clinically paralyzed by ignorance, arrogance, politics, bureaucracy and, above all else, fear — fear of doing the wrong thing. And it's not just fear of hurting themselves that has them hamstrung. No — what brings on the night sweats is their fear of doing something that might inadvertently benefit someone they hate. And this is a real risk, because the giant music execs seem to hate everyone their businesses touch. They hate each other, for one thing. And boy, do they hate the musicians (spoiled druggie narcissists!) They certainly hate the radio stations that basically advertise their music for free (too much power, the bastards!) And they loathe the online music industry (thieving geek bastards!) They hated the music retailers, back when they still existed (the bastards took too much margin!) They hate the Walmart folks, who account for most of what's left of physical CD sales (red state Nazi cheapskates!) They've always hated the concert industry (we should be getting that money!) And they all but despise the music-buying public (thieves! they're all a bunch of down-loading geek bastard thieving-ass thieves!)
He continues in this vein to point out how the industry’s hatred of Apple for revolutionizing digital music sales (and striking the biggest blow to piracy) with iTunes/iPods is irrational. This is a really great point, and this moment resonated for me. And then the book goes and makes another stupid joke about something else, and the moment is gone.
I’m sure a great deal of work went into this. And that’s where the editing needed to be better—burn it down and salt the earth help. Because the constant stream of “look at me and how clever and relevant I can be” jokes, however hard it might have been to come up with them, just feels like an attempt to cover up a lazy plot that meanders and goes almost nowhere, only to fizzle at the end. This also in the way Reid names things: Wrinkles, Perfuffinites, pluuhhs, and Guardians. It’s so half-baked and lazy that it almost feels contemptuous, as if Reid is intentionally writing bad science fiction in order to mock it—and, to be clear, I’m certain that isn’t the intent. But this is what happens when, in trying to be humourous, you make the mistake of not taking the genre itself seriously.
Further to the idea of laziness, Year Zero’s protagonist is a great example of one of the more common and troubling effects of white male privilege in literature. It’s kind of the corollary to the uproar over more diverse casts, or casting non-white, non-male actors as leads in “important” movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Basically, we white dudes are very good at believing that everyone likes to read stories where the hero is a white dude like us. Now, by itself, a story with a white dude as the hero is not a bad thing. But it gets really problematic when the white dude is almost certainly less competent and less interesting than other members of the cast.
Nick Carter is somewhat boring and not all that original—much as his boss initially pegs him. Indeed, Manda and Judy both seem far more suited to the task of dealing with aliens—and despite Nick’s eleventh hour inspiration to make him the hero once again, they pretty much shoulder the heavy lifting. And both Manda and Judy feel like far more interesting characters than Nick, to the extent that the entire book could have been written from one of their perspectives, without Nick at all, and been better for it.
But white male privilege often means authors have a huge blindspot here and labour under the assumption that a bland white guy with no particular redeeming talents or skills will, by default, be a more likable and sympathetic protagonist than competent women. While this is a problem for Year Zero, it’s not so much a critique of Reid in particular as an author but an example of a more systemic problem with our literature. We need to do better here, and one way to do it is to stop and think about who the main character of our books should really be.
Aside from that brief moment of lucidity I mentioned above, Year Zero almost manages to come together and feel coherent towards the end of the book. Nick and Manda are racing, almost out of time before the baddies’ plot comes to fruition. This crunch lends an urgency to the pacing that not even the constant infodumping can dispel. Unfortunately, Reid doesn’t sustain this suspense, and at what should have been a fretful climax, Nick miraculously saves the day in one of the most boring and tedious courtroom scenes I’ve read. And then there’s that last chapter about how Bill Gates and Windows are evil (amirite), and I just wanted to groan.
If Year Zero demonstrates anything, it isn’t the absurdity of copyright law. It’s that writing comedy is difficult. Not only does it take hard work, but I think a lot of people don’t realize that even good comedy writers end up discarding a lot of material just because it doesn’t work. Sometimes it can be salvaged, and sometimes it gets put to rest for good. But just because you have tried your best to be funny doesn’t mean you should put that best effort out there and expect a gold star.
I’m disappointed in this book not just because it’s terrible but because it’s terrible and it’s about a subject close to my heart. I’m really sympathetic to the ideas Reid portrays here; I wish I could love this book and hold it up as a great way to learn more about what bad copyright laws are doing to our society. It’s not meant to be.
So here’s to my last review of 2015!