E.T. on the Radio
Aliens dig Earth music in Rob Reid’s Year Zero
Rob Reid is the guy who invented Rhapsody, the music streaming service thing you may have heard about.
Yeah, I don’t recall it much either—only a faint memory of commercials involving a hot, bespectacled brunette and her dimwitted but upsettingly good-looking husband.
Anyway, now Reid's a novelist. His first book, Year Zero, concerns aliens who’ve stumbled upon Earth music, which has caused their civilization to come to a complete halt because they’re so hooked. Apparently, the only thing us hairless bipedal apes have to offer the universe is our tunes; sonic creation being the absolute highest form of artistic expression.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote that all music is sacred. I call bullshit on that. As I was sitting in the Laundromat reading this book, a gentleman serenaded me with a cappella renditions of what I believe were mainly classic rock songs. By the time he made it to “Sweet Home Alabama,” I was praying for some kind of divine wrath.
In Reid’s book, extraterrestrial law states that all civilizations must respect the edicts of the societies that create art. This means that because of Earth's draconian copyright laws, the aliens owe our record companies pretty much every red cent in the cosmos. A couple of space beings named, of course, Carly Simon and Peter Frampton, want to license the music to prevent the collapse of the universal economy. Another faction of aliens thinks it would be much easier to just wipe out Earth. They are led by a talking parrot.
It started when aliens got addicted to our tunes after hearing the theme music from “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Reid's pop-culture references indicate someone just a little bit older than me, which can mean light years in terms of such references.
Of course, the main character is named Nick Carter, so the Backstreet Boys get brought up a time or two. And we all love The Who, so readers should appreciate the bit about The Townshend Line, an invisible forcefield around the Earth that keeps out trillions of rabid Who fans who—in a mad dash to see one of the band’s concerts—would cause the Earth to collapse into a blackhole. The aliens also use World of Warcraft as a two-way radio, so the waterheads that came after my generation get a bit of slagging as well.
Reid hits some high comedic notes when riffing on future generations of Earthlings. There is a particularly lucid passage involving a yuppie eatery with a butter menu and free-roaming parrots who spout politically correct slogans. It serves “grass-fed, free-range Wagyu petite fillet ... sourced from an agrarian cooperative that's run by differently abled ranch hands.” Of course, the restaurant is populated with white folks who nearly give themselves hernias whenever they pronounce a Spanish word. Thank you for that, Mr. Reid. Thank you.
(On a side note, I've been reading a lot of books set in New York City lately, and I have to say that New Yorkers seem to spend a lot of time at pretentious restaurants and live sex shows.)
Year Zero is a lot like if Carl Hiaasen wrote American Psycho, but about the music copyright business instead of a bloodthirsty psychopath—if there is any difference. At least one dust jacket review wants to draw comparisons with Douglas Adams. But this isn't the dry British humor of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it's the full-bore American smartass variety (though it does tend to meander like an Adams book). Take that for what it's worth. There is also a liberal slathering of Philip K. Dick, though without that author’s schizo-affective disorder. When Mr. Carter speaks to the glowing, geometric-pattern-creating orb, it really is aliens talking back, not God.