July 25, 2012
Year Zero by Rob Reid
The set-up of Year Zero induced a laugh in itself: aliens have been listening to Earth's music since the late seventies and have now just realised that due to the Copyright laws they owe us an awful lot of money. It's billed as a comedy in the vein of The Hitchiker's Guide. It's easy to forget however that Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett make comedy look easy and effortless, when it really is very difficult indeed. At the start Year Zero made me chuckle a couple of times but it didn't ever make me laugh out loud and the comedy wore thin rather quickly.
Given that Rob Reid was the founder of the Rhapsody music service he has plenty of experience in the music industry and his knowledge of music copyright law and how lawyers act is obviously deep. What's a shame is that the characters are portrayed in too broad strokes, leaving them feeling like stereotypes and not real people. Consequently as a reader I was unaffected by the characters problems.
Year Zero has foot notes too, lots of them. Footnotes can of course be used to great comedic effect, however Year Zero often seemed to use them as an excuse to provide an info-dump or explain an opaque plot point. They felt like a crutch by the end of the novel.
Perhaps the humour of Year Zero doesn't travel too well, set in New York (whilst on Earth) some of the jokes I knew were supposed to be funny but I didn't understand them due to a lack of cultural references. When comedy relies on the reader knowing a brand or a person it's appeal is limited. It's that geeky slant to the comedy, which I thought would appeal to me, that is perhaps the books biggest downfall. Yes, there are some very current jokes, mentioning software firms or technology items, but many of them felt too obvious. Ranting about Microsoft and Windows for example is surely too cliched to get away with, maybe if you're over seventy you'd find it funny, but for anyone younger it's just tired. Compare those specifics to some comedy which has been found funny across many countries, such as Mr. Bean perhaps or Monty Python, and there's a gulf in the craft and understanding of comedy.
Year Zero contained plenty of ideas, some of them original, some not so original. Those ideas may well have benefited from a different length of story, a short story could have distilled the core funny idea and the plot into something snappy and sharp. Instead Year Zero is intent on stringing out a plot which I lost empathy with after half way.
I think this is Rob Reid's first novel, and I'm afraid it shows. He undoubtedly has some interesting ideas and of course enough funny war stories from his days running Rhapsody to entertain but Year Zero feels like the output of someone who has just turned their hand to writing fiction. That's not saying in the future he couldn't write a good novel, but this one was ultimately disappointing.