Category Archives: first contact

Review 205: Year Zero

LL 205 - Year ZeroYear 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.

Even their reality shows make ours look, well, childish.

Even their reality shows make ours look, well, childish.

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.

This doesn't even come close...

This doesn’t even come close…

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.

WHO'S a good Senator? Yes you ARE! Yes you ARE!

WHO’S a good Senator? Yes you ARE! Yes you ARE!

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.

By Grabthar's Hammer...

By Grabthar’s Hammer…

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.

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“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.”
– Carly

Rob Reid on Wikipedia
Year Zero on Amazon.com

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Filed under aliens, copyright, corporations, first contact, humor, Rob Reid, science fiction

Review 161: Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Once upon a time, there was a man named H. Beam Piper, and he wrote a series of books that began with Little Fuzzy, a tale of space-going humans who have to learn to live on a world with an adorably cute, yet sentient, species. While I haven’t read these books, my research tells me that they’re the type of fun, optimistic science fiction that is so emblematic of the early 60s. They dealt not only with the issues of human expansion into space, but with what it means to be an intelligent, sentient species. Given that we only have one case study – us – that definition will necessarily be narrow, and challenged. Humans have trouble relating with other humans who live only a six hour drive away, after all. Being able to relate to a non-human sentience that evolved on another planet will be a massive philosophical undertaking.

In 2010, John Scalzi announced on his blog that he had done a “reboot” of Piper’s work, revisiting the characters, themes and world that Piper had created and seeing what he could do with them. He did this partly because it seemed like a good idea, but also because it was something that hadn’t been done before in literature.

Some reboots are more imaginative than others. (Art by Evan Shaner)

If you’re a fan of science fiction, you know that stories from the visual media – TV and movies especially – get rebooted from time to time. The most notable recent examples are “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica,” and include shows like “Smallville” and the most recent run of Batman movies. If you read comics, you know this happens all the time as well, in ways big and small. Characters like Green Lantern, Thor, and the Fantastic Four are fundamentally the same as when they were created, but have evolved in ways their creators may have never expected.

In all of these examples, the fundamental core of each story is kept from the original – the world, the characters, the themes – and given new life. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and Scalzi felt that Piper’s world was good enough and interesting enough that it deserved to be re-introduced to a modern audience who might not otherwise know about it.

So, just for fun, he started writing Fuzzy Nation, a book that uses the characters and ideas from Little Fuzzy, the first of Piper’s books, and builds an entirely new story out of them. What resulted was a story that he thought was good enough to let out into the wild, and so – with the help of some intellectual property law and the blessing of Piper’s estate – he published Fuzzy Nation in 2011.

As I said, I haven’t read the original Piper books, but if they’re half as much fun to read as this one was, then I have to pick them up.

Sorry, I was looking for something pretty. Try again.

In the future, humankind has expanded out into space, as we so often do. With us, we have taken that peculiarly human trait, naked avarice, and brought it with us. The Zarathustra Corporation (ZaraCorp for short) is one of the leaders in exploiting and extracting usable resources from a planet. They’ve cornered the market on Sunstones – a decorative rock that glows with its wearer’s body heat and makes diamonds look like beach pebbles – and turned the ravaging of worlds into an art. A horribly environmentally destructive art.

Jack Holloway is a contract surveyor, a former trial lawyer, and not a very nice man. He helps ZaraCorp search for Sunstones on the hostile world of Zara XXIII, with the help of Carl, a dog with a fondness for explosions. Holloway finds seams of Sunstone and gets his cut of the money. It’s a nice enough arrangement out on a backwater world, and it doesn’t get complicated until he (and Carl) discover a Sunstone deposit that could fill the company’s coffers for decades.

At the same time, he encounters a curious form of life – or rather, it encounters him. Small, bipedal, intensely curious and undeniably clever, the Fuzzies (as Jack names them) seem to be truly remarkable animals. It is not until the ZaraCorp field biologist (and Jack’s former girlfriend), Janice Wangai, suggests that they might be sentient that things get truly complicated. After all, Colonial law is very clear on what companies like ZaraCorp are and are not allowed to do on each planet they run, and “ravaging the world of another sentient species” is pretty much at the top of their Do Not list.

The Fuzzies would make an AMAZING vest...

It soon becomes a race to save the Fuzzies from ZaraCorp and its army of lawyers. If they win, the Fuzzies will have a planet on which they can grow and thrive. If ZaraCorp wins, they’ll have nothing but the least useful bits of dirt and shrubbery left. Holloway has to do a good thing but he has to do it his way – a way that rarely has him acting like a good man.

The first thing I thought when I finished this, actually, was, “I needed that.” My reading choices for a while have been kind of heavy, or at least not a whole lot of fun to read. Good, yes, but not fun. I know this because I find myself doing things that aren’t reading – listening to podcasts, reading through articles I’ve saved on Instapaper, going through old columns at Cracked.com, things like that. With this book, though, there was none of that stalling. I read it every chance I could and blew through the whole thing in two days. So let that be take-home lesson number one: this book is fun to read.

And while it is an adventure, it does hit on some interesting and contemporary topics, not the least of which is the question of how ethically a corporation should be expected to behave. ZaraCorp, like any company, has a primary mission to make money, especially as the company is publicly traded. They have to get money to those stockholders who have invested in them so that they can make more money to exploit more resources. And that’s a point that Scalzi has made in his own blog: “I think the majority [of] corporations act logically and rationally and in a manner consistent with the general reason for their existence,” he writes. “And the reason most corporations exist — and most large multinational corporations in particular — is simple: To maximize shareholder value.”

Go on - take the pension fund. They'll probably just waste it on food...

In Fuzzy Nation, he takes this to the place where corporate rational self-interest turns bad. You see, it is perfectly possible for a corporation to achieve its goal while still being environmentally responsible or socially conscious. In other words, to fulfill its responsibility to the shareholders without violating the ethical or moral codes of the people who actually make up those groups.

But there are those who are all too willing to put the fiduciary responsibility of the corporation above the ethical responsibilities of people, and that’s where the Evil Corporation comes in. ZaraCorp fits this to a T. They see nothing but profits in Zara XXIII, and if the Fuzzies stand in their way – sentient or not – they will do whatever is necessary to eliminate them while at the same time doing their level best to stay within the legal bounds prescribed by the Colonial Authority. Or not to get caught crossing them, at least.

In the end, this becomes about why we do what we do, and how we project those reasons onto other people. ZaraCorp is motivated by untempered greed, and assumes that Holloway will be too. Holloway is interested in himself, but finds himself needing to be interested in other people. The motivations of the Fuzzies, for most of the book, is unclear, but they too have to learn the difference between what they think other people want and what they really want.

It’s a fast, tight book that is great fun to read, has characters that you like, even if they’re despicable, and has some moments of wonderful emotion that come around the corner and hit you like a hammer. It’s part philosophical adventure, part legal thriller, and part sarcastic comedy, verging on satire. Books like this are why I keep coming back to Scalzi.

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“…with all due respect for your considerable skills and intellect, the fact of the matter is that you have absolutely no clue what it is I want out of this.”
– Jack Holloway, Fuzzy Nation
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
Fuzzy Nation on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s blog
H. Beam Piper on Wikipedia
Little Fuzzy on Wikipedia

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Filed under aliens, business, colonization, corporations, ethics, first contact, humor, John Scalzi, morality, science fiction