Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Year Zero by, Rob Reid

Human beings are the most musically advanced civilization in the universe. Even our crappiest earworm brings rapture to any alien species who listens to it. This is why aliens have been pirating our music since 1977. It turns out, however, that this piracy has racked up a giant royalty bill that would bankrupt the galaxy if the Earth ever tried to collect it. A group of aliens decides it would just be easier to destroy the earth. A second group of aliens enlists the help of a copyright attorney named Nick Carter to find a way out from under the crushing debt.

A lot of the press about Year Zero mentions it in the same breath as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I'm convinced that the only people who make that comparison are those who know HHG2G is funny sci-fi, but who have never actually read Guide. The concept of Year Zero is good fodder for a funny book, but the execution was lacking. Here are a few writerly tips about what went wrong with this book.

1) Weighted more heavily toward summary than scene. A scene is showing what happens when two people go on a date. Summary is having a character say "I went on a date last night and this happened". A vast majority of the book is told via summary. You're in the middle of a scene when a character we haven't seen in a while comes on the page and explains what they've been doing while they were away. Some of this is fine, but too often it drags the story to a halt. There were even times where the narrator tells another character what he was up to between chapters. Why not just show it?

2) Over-explaining things. Science fiction is tricky. You come up with an alien species or sweet piece of technology and you have to communicate to the reader enough information so they're not lost. However, you don't need characters sitting around and reading the whole wikipedia entry about the topic. Think of it this way: if a visitor from 1600 shows up at your front door, could you explain how planes fly? Or how the internal combustion engine powers your car? Most likely not. And does the information further the plot? Do you really need five pages to describe X if it doesn't move Nick from point A to point B in the story? If the answer is no, give the reader enough to go on and then move on.

3) Appropriate reactions. This is more of an advanced tip. Early on it's good. Hey aliens show up! Holy crap, what's going on? But at a critical juncture in the story, an ally Nick recruited to help him out vanishes into thin air when it shouldn't be possible. Nick and the other characters shrug, say he/she is probably OK, and continue. Don't be afraid to have your characters freak out if a freakout is called for.

There were other things that annoyed me, but those are more likely a matter of personal preference.

This probably makes is sound like I hated Year Zero, but I didn't. There were parts that worked and parts that didn't. I would have liked to have seen the story handled by a more talented writer, but the book served its purpose.

Your mileage may vary.

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