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Thanks to Rob Reid for “Year Zero,” a hilarious novel about aliens and copyright law. The novel does three amazing things:
- It entertains! Read the story for the joy of it.
- It inspires us to level up by providing a fantastic vision to aspire to. The “Refined League” rocks! Let’s join it.
- it shines a light on the byzantine world of business as usual. The parallels between copyright law and the cynicism of the energy industry are striking. The creative solution to the copyright conundrum in the book inspires us to get creative about the energy crisis. See also ROI COI.
The novel opens with: “Aliens suck at music.” They’ve tried to be good at it, “but the music’s so awful that it’s always mistaken for the death rattle of a distant star. It’s seriously that bad. Or more accurately - we’re that good.”
But aliens love music, and when they discover ours, it leads to close encounters of the copyright violation kind. The plot, as summarized on Amazon, is:
Low-level entertainment lawyer Nick Carter thinks it’s a prank, not an alien encounter, when a redheaded mullah and a curvaceous nun show up at his office. But Frampton and Carly are highly advanced (if bumbling) extraterrestrials. The entire cosmos, they tell him, has been hopelessly hooked on American pop songs ever since “Year Zero” (1977 to us), resulting in the biggest copyright violation since the Big Bang and bankrupting the whole universe. Nick has just been tapped to clean up this mess before things get ugly. Thankfully, this unlikely galaxy-hopping hero does know a thing or two about copyright law. Now, with Carly and Frampton as his guides, Nick has forty-eight hours to save humanity—while hoping to wow the hot girl who lives down the hall from him.
Leveling Up to The Refined League
In introducing the conflict between aliens and humans, Reid unfolds a splendid vision of the the next level in human existence. Yes, our music is better than the aliens, but:
The irony is that in every other artistic form that matters to the rest of the cosmos, we’re the dullards. In sculpture, fashion , and synchronized swimming, we rank in the bottom percentile, universe-wide. Decoupage and pyrotechnics aren’t even considered to be high expressive forms here, grotesquely stunting our development in those fields…
All of this is according to the standards of the Refined League - an obnoxiously brilliant and peaceful confederation of alien societies that spans the universe. To join it, primitives like us first have to attain a certain middling mastery of science. Pull that off, and we’ll be promoted to the Refined ranks. We’ll then be handed all of the technological secrets that we haven’t yet cracked for ourselves, as a sort of cosmic graduation gift. And that will free us up to spend the rest of eternity creating and consuming great art - just like every other Refined species.(Year Zero, pp. 4)
Make sure to read chapter 9 for a description of the apartment of someone from the Refined League. Brilliant! You’ll want to dedicate your life to creating and consuming great art as well. And you will rue the fact that we haven’t leveled up to Refined League status yet.
Think about it - the material problems will all be solved, so we all have a good quality of life. And employment is solved because we are all employed pursuing our arts and visions. And if you REALLY want to live a difficult life - that can be arranged (Sum has some interesting meditations on this - it is, after all, an afterlife scenario).
What is holding us back? Many things.
The bad news is that most societies destroy themselves with nuclear, biological, or nanoweapons long before achieving Refined status. And when this happens, Refined observers do nothing to stop the annihilation. This may sound heartless, but it’s actually a prudent form of self-defense - since any society that’s violent and stupid enough to self destruct on H-bombs might easily destroy the universe if it survives long enough to invent something with real firepower. (Year Zero, pp. 4)
But it’s not just our weapons and violence that are holding us back. The most fascinating thing about ‘Year Zero” is the light it shines on our petty business practices. As the story unfolds, you start to see the real reason we are stalling out as a species. The breathtaking descriptions of business pettiness is the most delicious contribution of this novel.
Byzantine world of Business as Usual
In “Year Zero” the aliens discover they have been listening to earth music illegally. Being refined beings, filled with integrity, they are bound to obey the laws of the artists whose art they consume. This creates a serious problem. at $250K per illegally downloaded song, the aliens collectively owe earthlings billions of times the wealth of the universe (everything is measured in gold, of course). You see the conflict? This creates a strong incentive to make sure humans don’t level up and join the Refined League. Indeed, it creates incentive to guarantee that humans self-destruct.
In this scene, Nick, the human copyright attorney, asks Carly, the alien music fan and emissary, how he can help.
Carly leaned toward me, almost conspiratorially. “We need a license to all of humanity’s music. One that will allow…a rather large number of beings to play it. Privately and in public. And to copy it. And to transmit it, share it, and store it. (Year Zero, pp. 16)
Nick ponders this.
A prospective client imagines that our music-saturated society must surely have a rational and well-defined set of rules governing music licensing. They come to us because we famously know everyone in the industry. So naturally, we can get them their licenses in a trice - right?
You’d think. But music licensing is an arcane thicket of ambiguity, overlapping jurisdictions, and litigation. This is a disastrous situation for musicians, as well as for music fans and countless businesses. In fact, it suits absolutely nobody - apart from the cynical lawyers who run the music labels, the lobbying groups, the House, the Senate, and several parasitic law firms like my own. Collectively, we are wholly empowered to fix the entire mess. But that would result in a needless loss of extravagantly high-paying legal work for all. So we indignantly denounce the situation to our respective patrons, wave our fists at each other in public, and then privately chuckle slyly over drinks. (Year Zero, pp 16)
Why does this resonate so in thinking about the energy industry? It’s not an energy supply problem (just as it’s not a music supply problem - there is a lot of music) - this is an institutional manipulation problem. And there are interests at stake, and a thicket of disincentives to solving the problem.
Once again, bravo to Rob Reid for presenting a vivid vision of a refined world I aspire to level up to. And thank you for shining a light on the pettiness that keeps us grounded here - the game that we are really playing and need to win to level up.