I don’t generally read a science fiction, so reviewing Rian Hughes’ XX in the context of its genre is impossible for me: I can’t point out clever references or offer witty insights. I wasn’t much looking forward to reading XX because tackling a 977 page first novel isn’t something to undertake lightly, sci fi or not.
Trepidations aside I did really enjoy this book. It helps that technology plays a big part and although there were a few holes, for the most part the technical stuff’s convincing. More significantly this book exploits everything it’s possible to do with digital technology for page layout, composition and printing. Hughes uses typography and exploits the precision of inkjet digital printing to convey the characters’ experiences, often in ways not possible in the pre-digital imaging age.
The eponymous XX is one of three Digital Memetic Entities, DMEns created online but connected to a wider world through their digital iterations in digital channels. XX’s colleagues are Girl 21 and the 19th Count, both of whom play bigger parts in the story than XX. The DMEns are characters borne of ideas, ideas that drove the last three centuries and they have agency. The DMEns are made tangible by the genius of a computer geek working on AI applications for digital games. Jack and his colleagues are amongst a handful of people able to understand an obscure transmission coming from outer space. The Signal, picked up as sound waves, is actually a huge binary entity. Its digitally defined parameters are referred to as the Grid, wherein numerous lost civilisations and creatures are embedded and transported. The Signal’s connection to a curious crash landing on the dark side of the moon gradually becomes apparent and through the subsequent investigation, we meet Dana an astronaut who becomes intimately entwined with the Grid, its Shepherds and the DMEns. That much I got. I think.
It’s tempting when hefting XX onto your well-muscled lap or sturdy table to assume that the book is overwritten, but this isn’t the case. The writing is sharp, tight, pacy even, but the narrative is almost overwhelmed with creative possibly fictitious support material. Unexpectedly the diversity and volume of evidence for the main premise (still trying to work that one out) actually does help drive the narrative.
The lists, internet references et al provide necessary context for some of the themes addressed. These are many and the most important one isn’t obvious until the very end of the book. Symbols are stories. Words, letters, graphics and glyphs of all kinds, binary and digital, are messengers, possibly sentient beings. Symbols and digital algorithms shape perceptions, facts, ideas, truth or lies, reality. Broadcast datastream signals can provide common voice, or have unique and granular meanings. Examples used in XX range from BBC News websites and newspaper clippings through to Wikipedia entries and extracts from classified meeting transcripts. Unfortunately all voices in the various background stuff sound the same, like Jack, so it’s hard to have the patience to read these sections. Maybe this is ok in a sci-fi novel?
Excess detail such as the frame by frame analysis of the Daedelus footage images, and numerous coding examples are definitely annoying to read. But they demonstrate that meaning depends on how a description, or symbol, is interpreted and the response to that interpretation, whatever the medium. Meaning is ascribed by the receiver of the data. Ideas are not fixed or immutable.
So we understand that this story is well written and pacy, but is it just too much? Possibly, except as the book proceeds and the end is in sight, the excess background experiences take on more meaning and relevance. The long descriptions can be a drag and undermine the slow moving drama, but at around the last third of the book the pace picks up. What is basically a pedestrian story gussied up in philosophical posturing, then becomes exciting and compelling.
Certainly there are too many digressive rambles and rants to hold many readers’ attention. But XX is part sci-fi, part graphic story and part philosophical treatise. Through the demonstration of the value of recorded history, from pictograms and letters through to data archives, we appreciate the evolution of ideas, their persistence and power. We are reminded that to counter a bad idea you need to have a better one. The rendition of ideas in words, page design, images and type pushes typographic composition beyond anything seen in a first novel, or indeed any other. XX exploits digital prepress and production technologies to amplify the expression of page design and composition.
Things get much more exciting as XX approaches its conclusion, despite the exhaustion of the preceding breezeblock of pages. The author may be bludgeoning reader with content to give the experience of what the universe is undergoing. The heavy use of typography and layout add another dimension to our ideas of what a novel should look like. It’s wonderful to see technology add such a fabulous new creative dimension to our concept of the book. XX is an extraordinary achievement and quite unprecedented.