Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Book 26: Also American readers can't handle the word a**hole but are okay with "kneebiter."
Writing humor is hard, and writing scifi humor is harder still, because the moment you put a joke into your scifi book it's going to be compared to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker books; Year Zero was billed as being similar to, or in the vein of, the Hitchhiker books, and it is, in a sense -- because they are both scifi books with a humorous tone and wacky hijinks. Beyond that, the books aren't really similar; Adams' humor exists on a level higher than any other book I can think of, with the multiple layers of jokes and asides and weird one-offs. There's nothing even half as clever as 'the most grautuitous use of the word Belgium' (which, as an aside, only exists as a phrase in the book for us because Americans are too prudish to let Adams use the word f**k .) But not every book has to be the greatest thing ever in the world to be enjoyable.
Year One is sort of oddly enjoyable; it sounds too specific and on-the-nose to be entertaining: the story revolves around aliens getting exposed to human music (specifically the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song) and being overwhelmed by how great our music is. So overwhelmed that they download, for 40 years, trillions upon trillions of copies spreading around the universe, only to realize one day that because of copyright laws the Earth is now owed something like 300 zillion times the entire wealth of the universe. That sets off a plot that honestly makes very little sense, alternating between proceeding along wholly-expected lines and veering into areas that seem to have no connection to what happened before. The hero is Nick Carter, who shares the name of a Backstreet Boy and the head of his law firm, which case of doubly-mistaken identity causes some aliens to select him as their lawyer to try to negotiate a license for the music, and to do so because a guild of entertainers succeeds in destroying the Earth 'accidentally' to avoid paying up.
Paying too much attention, or maybe too little attention, causes the plot to never quite add up; for example, there's a part at the end where one of the bad guys is insisting on getting the Guild's money back, and unless I'd missed it (I listened on audio) the Guild had never paid money in the story, so that didn't make sense, but it's the kind of story that doesn't really need to make sense. The details of why the aliens love our music so much and how that shapes them, combined with weird technologies and a sort of haphazard stop-and-go to the plot make the book more fun than I would've expected, and there are parts that are flat-out funny or amazing (the scene where Nick fights a group of photophobes in the dark ends in a way that is hilariously off-putting.)
The book occasionally gets a bit too specific about copyright laws; it's almost like it was written in part to be a primer on copyrights, like an infomercial for law clerks or something, but those parts are few and far between. That type of thing is to be expected, I guess: Rob Reid, the author, is a venture capitalist who got his start by founding Listen.com, which then turned into Rhapsody, the first online music streaming site. He founded that back in 2001, which is practically ancient history in Internet years. Shortly before he wrote this book, he gave a TED talk about how much of a sham "Copyright Math" is and argued that fighting music piracy could best be done not by draconian laws but by making it easier and cheaper to get music legally.
(Copyright laws, which I only know a little bit about, are a debatable bit of public legislation. Every country signatory to a treaty from the 19th century is required to protect copyrights for the life of the author plus at least 50 years. In 1998, the US extended this for most works to 75 years after the author's death. This was done, they said, to match European laws and to 'stimulate creativity,' the thinking being that nobody would bother to create something if they couldn't protect it for their entire life plus another lifetime after that. I think that's open to question. My own position is that copyright should be minimal -- maybe 5 or 10 years-- and that after that, anyone could use something created by someone else but they would have to share profits, providing 75% of the profits to the original creator during the creator's lifetime. That way, anyone could now (for example) use Luke Skywalker in their own books, movies, etc., but 75% of all the money earned would go to... Disney, I guess. So the incentive would be to create your own things, or to create some spinoff that's so wildly popular that you don't mind giving up 75% of the dough. Imagine, though: my system would mean Harry Potter would be fair game for everyone, which sounds weird to people, probably, but remember that 'Fifty Shades Of Gray' first began as a Twilight-fanfic, with the characters renamed. Everyone knows that's how it came to be, but because she changed a few details of the characters, Fifty Shades was allowed to exist.)
To be honest, I only listened to Year Zero because it was available and the books I really wanted weren't, but it hooked me pretty fast and I enjoyed it. I'd give it a solid three out of five; don't go out of your way to read it but if you like Hitchhiker or other sort of silly scifi you'll probably enjoy this.