Year Zero by Rob Reid
I’ll bet you never thought you would see an intergalactic alien thriller that all centered on the intricacies of copyright law, did you? Well, if that’s what you’ve been waiting for, then this is the book you want to read.
The universe, as it turns out, is well-populated with other civilizations. Some of them are nearly human in appearance, others are so radically unlike us that they’re hard to imagine, much less talk to. Giant snails, two-dimensional beings, foul-mouthed parrots and bio-machine intelligences – all of these and more make up the Refined League, the greatest political entity in the universe. In order to become part of the League, your civilization has to first prove that it can overcome the violent urges that lead so many intelligent cultures to self-extinction. Once it has done that, the League provides it with technology so advanced that it may as well be magic, allowing the new members to completely solve their technological problems and instead focus their energies on creative and cultural works.And that is where the League shines brightly. Their artistic sense is so far beyond ours that were we to see it in its full flower our brains would likely shut down from the beauty. Their art and architecture, cinema and drama, fashion, food – hell, their calligraphy and paper-making are works of art that make our great masters look like toddlers drawing stick figures in the mud. In nearly all respects, the Refined League outclasses humanity.
Except, as it turns out, for music.
Thanks to some twist in our evolution, we are the only civilization capable of creating truly great music. Indeed, the first music heard by an alien culture – the closing credits song to “Welcome Back, Kotter” – was so amazing and so powerful that countless individuals died from ecstasy overload. As the universe turned its ears towards Earth, they discovered what they had been missing all along, and were soon tapping into our radio and TV broadcasts to get copies of the greatest music ever made. The discovery of Earth’s music was so pivotal to the cultural history of the universe, that the League reset their calendars to reflect it, thus making October 13, 1977 the beginning of Year Zero.
For decades, Earth music was recorded and copied and passed along. And while it did still occasionally kill people with its beauty and glory, those who survived cherished the gift we were unknowingly giving to them. While we were not yet prepared to join the League, we were the center of the universe.
Until the law got involved.
The central governing principle of the League is that indigenous laws must be respected, no matter what. It wasn’t until our songs had been copied over hundreds of millions of times that the League discovered the incredibly draconian and torturous copyright laws that govern music on our planet, and the heavy fines that are imposed for piracy. Under U.S. copyright law alone, it turns out, the universe owes us money.All the money.
Two of the universe’s biggest stars break through the barrier that’s supposed to protect our planet and approach Nick Carter – not a Backstreet Boy, but a young attorney specializing in copyright law – to try and find a way to fix this little problem. But they’re not the only ones looking to find a way out of the mess the League has gotten itself into. Members of an entertainer’s union – now pretty much defunct since Earth music took everything over – would rather see us gone entirely, so they’re prepared to make sure we find a way to destroy ourselves before any kind of arrangement can be reached. Nick, along with the universally-admired celebrities Carly and Frampton, are in a race against a violent alien parrot and an angry vacuum cleaner to save the Earth and the Refined League both, along with keeping the music coming.
It’s a very fast read – I went through it in a day – and is built on a very entertaining premise, one which undermines a lot of what we’ve come to expect from first contact stories. The author’s experience in the online music industry no doubt gave him a lot of material to work from, and he made it into a fun race against the clock. Part of the reason I bought the book was its premise – we’re all so used to seeing stories about how wonderful aliens are compared to ourselves, and it’s nice to see it subverted in a clever and interesting way.It was also a clear and repeated stab at the way we handle creative property rights in the United States – indeed in most countries around the world. The law firm for which Carter works is so entrenched in the business of protecting copyright that they practically wrote some of the most egregious laws against piracy. They even have their own pet Senator, a thinly-veiled version of Orrin Hatch who is nicknamed “Fido,” who does their bidding in Washington. They’re not concerned with making sure the artists are compensated, or that their music is treated fairly. They’re interested in getting as much money as possible from as many people as possible, and have no qualms about doing what’s necessary. What’s more, most of the legal plot points settle around real U.S. law – the Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999, which mandates fines of up to $150,000 per song.
As a comparison, in the state of Connecticut, for example, the fine for a class A felony (murder) is up to $20,000. So if you were thinking of downloading that new Bieber single, you may as well just kill seven people and pocket the extra ten grand. Admittedly, the CDIA doesn’t allow for prison sentences (I think), but a person effectively bankrupted by legal action will probably end up in prison one way or another.
In its way, though, the book does suffer from a common problem that I’ve been seeing a lot recently: the cardboard villain. In this book, the pro-copyright forces are just plain Wrong, and will clearly not win the day. Now I have no problem vilifying law firms and giant corporations – hell, that’s practically a hobby of mine – but I would like to have seen a bit more humanity from them, rather than a giant monolithic force of legal evil. Even the main human avatar of that monolith, Carter’s boss, pretty much abandons her position as soon as she realizes the threat that the Earth is under. We know that these laws are wrong, but how they got so wrong is something that could have added to the story.
Of course, that itself could be a book of great and ponderous length, so I can understand why Reid might have glossed over it.The other criticism that I have of this book is that it will one day be horribly, terribly dated. There are pop culture references everywhere in the story. Some are subtle, some are not, and it was kind of fun being able to pick them out. Everything from GalaxyQuest to Monty Python to Breaking Bad – if you’ve been paying attention to popular culture for the last twenty years or so, you’ll find these little nuggets buried in the story. And they’re great, as long as you’re reading the book in proximity to those cultural references. I don’t know how well it will hold up for a reader twenty or thirty years down the road, but that may not have been Reid’s intention.
This is a book written for a specific time and reason, in an intellectual climate that the author understands far too well. Perhaps he just wanted to write a book for this moment, and never meant it to last much longer. Whatever his motivations, I hope he continues to explore this kind of writing, and gives us bigger and better in the future.
“Our legal scholars have researched [the Copyright Damages Improvement Act] thoroughly. And they unanimously agree that it is the most cynical, predatory, lopsided, and shamelessly money-grubbing copyright law written by any society, anywhere in the universe since the dawn of time itself.”