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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Rian Hughes

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To purchase XX

Title: XX
Author: Rian Hughes
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020
Length: 977 pages
Availability: XX - US
XX - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a remarkably well-crafted concept-novel, and a fascinating concept

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 10/12/2020 Buzz Poole
Daily Mail . 20/8/2020 Jamie Buxton
Financial Times . 13/8/2020 Neville Hawcock

  From the Reviews:
  • "A novel about first contact is nothing new, of course, but Hughes, best known as a graphic designer, typographer, and illustrator, has reinvented this classic science fiction trope in a massive work of dizzying originality. (...) XX is a page turner that transcends the typical alien story, becoming an engaging treatise on the nature and development of written language and its indelible impact on human culture. (...) Hughes would have been well served to curb his designer's tendency to namecheck fonts and make the obligatory Comic Sans joke, but on the whole the typographic fireworks and graphic design savvy are justified, and in fact absolutely necessary, because XX is about the transmission of ideas" - Buzz Poole, Boston Globe

  • "Vastly ambitious, XX is the most astonishing blend of narrative, meta-narratives and visuals. Real ‘wow’ moments and big ideas combine with brilliant typographical flourishes to create the Moby Dick of sci-fi." - Jamie Buxton, Daily Mail

  • "That does not mean XX is a triumph of appearance over content. Hughes’s overarching theme is how ideas, once encoded in print, bits or neurons, compete, evolve and re-express themselves, so the multiplicity of styles is more than apt. Besides, his story is lively enough to be energised rather than swamped by the graphical pyrotechnics. (...) (L)ike the best pulp tales, it keeps you turning the pages, engages with big ideas and delivers an authentic jolt of awe as it takes its galaxy-spanning conceit to the limit, and then some. It also, crucially, has a sense of humour -- it pays to be light on your feet when you’re blowing minds -- and is not ashamed of its genre roots." - Neville Hawcock, Financial Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       XX is a mankind-encounters-alien-intelligence novel, set in a near future (the world is technologically (and otherwise) at a point very close to our own, but there is, for example, more advanced lunar exploration being done). It comes in quick succession in two forms: a 'Signal from Space', containing a huge amount of data -- "in its raw form: a 100-trillion-digit number" -- and an object that had sped into the Solar System, punctured and gone clean through Jupiter's Europa-moon and eventually embedded itself in the Earth's Moon.
       The main characters are a trio that has just founded a start-up in London called Intelligencia, hoping to do what they describe as 'Memetic Engineering' -- Jack Fenwick, Harriet Haze, and Nixon Rappaport -- and astronaut Dana Normansson who, when the story opens, is the lone member of: "a stopgap caretaker crew" on the moon's Daedalus Base.
       Nixon is the CEO of Intelligencia, and the brilliant Jack -- his business card gives his job title as 'Genius' -- is basically the mind he is funding; Harriet is a programmer -- 'Code Monkey', as her business card has it. Basically: "Intelligencia had been set up to find a way to give the information on the internet insight into itself", as Jack is convinced:

Intelligence, artificial or otherwise, is not something you have to build; it's inherent in the Universe. in matter. It's already there. You just need to construct a suitable vessel and intelligence will come and occupy it.
       The Signal then provides a whole lot more of that intelligence than they likely ever bargained for, much more than just the internet could, and that then becomes the focus of their efforts. Jack has a knack for pattern recognition -- "The human brain is very good at pattern recognition", but Jack's abilities are on a whole different level -- and that proves very useful, though a lot of trial and error is involved.
       Initially, the thinking is that the Signal is a message from outer space, but soon they begin to wonder whether or not the message is itself an alien life form -- in the form of pure information. They explore how to access it -- to possibly give it some physical form. And, of course, there is the ongoing concern as to its intentions -- has it come with benign intent, for example, or is it in some way(s) a threat ? (The answer: it's complicated .....)
       Jack originally learns about the Signal from friend Daniel Novák, astronomer in residence and acting SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) steering committee chair at Jodrell Bank and basically representing the authorities, dealing with information that remains classified (or should) and trying to limit the information that seeps out to the public. Jack can more or less keep a secret, but information about and from Signal has a way of seeping out, and soon there is considerable public interest in it and its possible meanings
       XX is not presented in straightforward novel form, a simple chapter-by-chapter prose narrative -- though there is that too, the solid foundation of the book. But author Hughes overlays a great deal more on that foundation. Much is simply documentary -- supporting material, as it were (or, more accurately, supplemental material). So, for example, there are the verbatim transcripts of the emails between Jack and Daniel at various points and, well into the novel, transcripts of what are essentially debriefings of Dana about her experiences on the Moon. There are also a wide variety of pieces from newspapers, magazines, and journals, from tabloid-takes on some of the information that comes out to serious scholarly discussions of the possible implications. Wikipedia pages are presented in full. An entire eight-part 'novelette of strange alien cultures', serialized in a science fiction magazine, is reproduced -- a(n entertaining) novel-within-the-novel. There is a transcript of a debate from the Oxford Union (though they: "departed from the usual format in that we have no formal proposition"). And much more.
       Hughes goes considerably beyond all that as well, in particular in presenting the interaction, as it were, with the Signal. In trying to access the information, Jack finds and conceives of different ways of essentially seeing it, visually, and it manifests itself in words and images. A graphic designer, Hughes also very much, and very carefully designed this book, using graphics in various forms, notably with a great deal of typographical variation, from Marinetti-inspired Futurism to Horace Walpole's handwriting. Images and symbols are widely used too, from simple artistic reproductions to abstract-looking representations. Text is printed broken off, slanted, and sideways, and there are even blank pages.
       All this does serve the story -- indeed, underpins the story, which is ultimately about ideas and the representation of ideas, and how to convey them. The 'XX' of the title is one manifestation -- "Not an alien [...] a memetic construct, an artefact in ideaspace", and neatly introduced in many forms -- complemented by a tweeting 'Girl, 21' and a '19th Count', each distinctive in their presentation; as Girl, 21 suggests:
If Aristo Dandy Dude in white is like the spirit of the #19cent.
& XX - Modernist Man-machine is 20th
       Jack at one point notes that, essentially, words are not enough, and so: "We have to expand the range of available symbolic building blocks. A much broader orthography", and Hughes neatly suggests some of that, a fascinating thought-exercise played out for the reader.
       Much of the novel does involve trying to determine what the Signal is, and then also what danger or opportunities it presents, a neat piece of speculative fiction. Dana's encounter with the alien life form that crashed on the moon then also factors in, as her much more hands/mind-on experience gives her particular insight into what is going on (along with some remarkable abilities), and eventually she will join forces with the Intelligencia crew.
       The concept of the Signal is fascinating, especially then in the issues its very nature raises, about the spread of, essentially, ideas ("Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come" is the very appropriate Victor Hugo quote that's used as an epigraph to the second part of the novel), and Hughes presents all this well. So also then the way it is dealt with by Jack and Dana makes for some solid suspense of the more traditional sort as well; the concluding parts of the novel, in particular, are enjoyably exciting. (As cerebral as much of the novel is, Hughes does also get some decent action in.)
       Hughes presents a book that -- certainly in appearance -- flouts many of the rules of form and presentation of the familiar printed book (while also hewing closely to others: there is never any doubt about what XX is -- it is most definitely a printed book -- and how it is to be 'used'). This is most obvious with the pages of symbols that are not 'readable' in any traditional sense, but also in some of the more standard parts: the Index, along with the picture and font design credits, and acknowledgements, appears some three-quarters of the way into the book, for example. Nevertheless, for all the illustrations and different typefaces, and all the variations of documentary material interspersed throughout the book, it's all built up on -- and always comes back to -- a narrative that is, in fact, very traditional in form. The subject-matter is, in part, complex, and both text and narrative reflect that, as XX is very much a novel that tries both to show as well as tell -- and Hughes proves quite successful at that.
       XX is a wild (and long) ride; even if it at times one can feel a bit adrift, it is practically always an interesting one. The attention to detail is remarkable, and even smaller, seemingly tangential bits are exceptionally well-crafted (so also more substantial bits, such as the entertaining serialized novelette). It does get weighed down by its sheer heft -- nearly a thousand pages, and a whole lot of material -- but offers more than enough both in simple entertainment as well as technical and philosophical speculation to be a consistently interesting read.
       A read that is, in many respects, fascinating; well worth a closer look.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 December 2022

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XX: Reviews: Rian Hughes: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Rian Hughes is also a graphic designer and illustrator.

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© 2022 the complete review

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