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Book Review: Rob Reid's Year Zero

This spoof of the recording industry and copyright law is an enjoyable read. Oddly, it takes the form of a science fiction thriller. Alien life forms have developed scientifically and culturally well beyond anything that mere earthlings could imagine … except in one area: music. It turns out that humans, while hopelessly primitive in all other areas, are the universe’s best musicians. When, in the mid seventies, aliens first discover human music (the theme from “Welcome Back Kotter) it sends them into paroxysms of pleasure. This discovery is the most important thing that has happened in the history of the universe. The problem is that the aliens’ legal code states that when primitive life forms’ cultural practices are appropriated, it must be according to the norms of original culture. The more refined inhabitants of the universe have illegally downloaded so much human music that they now owe the record companies virtually all the money in the universe.

This is where copyright lawyer Nick Carter (who happens to share a name with a Backstreet Boy) comes in. Carter – who is about to lose his job – is recruited by the good-guy aliens to find a way to cancel the debt and to help save the world. The bad-guy aliens want to aid and abet the earthlings in their self-annihilation by providing unsavory characters with “metallicum,” a sort of plutonium on steroids. (The humor of the book is based on just such allusions to popular music.) Nick is intitally approached by the good aliens Carla and Frampton (dressed like a sexy nun and a red-haired mullah, respectively). The bad guys appear shortly afterwards in the guises of a parrot who speaks Brooklynese and a vacuum cleaner. Interwoven with the main plot is a love story. Nick is smitten by Manda, the alternative rock singer who lives down the hall from him.

The blurbs on the novel’s dust jacket would lead you to believe that the book will leave you in stitches. They are perhaps over-stated. Clever and smart, the novel does provoke some minor chuckles: “It was as if a giant clan of pint-sized linebackers had just heard that their kid sister was at the junior high dance with R. Kelly.” Just as good as the novel’s humor is what it teaches us about the more ridiculous aspects of copyright law. In short, Year Zero is both entertaining and instructive. While it won’t make many desert-island reading lists, it is well worth your while if you’re a pop music junkie with even the most remote interest in questions of intellectual property laws.

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