Published by Picador
“…the Signal might already have the ability to manipulate its environment in subtle ways. In minds, where it can be thought, an idea can finally find some kind of expression. It can influence the behaviour of the person who thinks it. It can inspire people to spread the idea. We become missionaries for the idea’s reproduction. The Signal is one of the most virulent memes we’ve come across—even though we currently know nothing about its actual content, it’s still managed to inveigle its way into billions of human brains.”
A radio telescope at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK has detected a signal seeming to come from outer space. Although the scientists at the Observatory try to keep it secret while they figure out what it means, the signal is leaked online. Before long, it has gone viral and is being used in art and music.
To help, Jodrell Bank calls on Jack Fenwick, a brilliant artificial intelligence expert with the ability to detect patterns in everything. Jack involves Intelligencia, the start-up he works for, consisting of him and his two colleagues, Harriet and Nixon. They find a way to decipher the signal.
Meanwhile, astronomers observe an object speeding through space, much faster than anything they have seen before. It slows as it approaches the sun—something that is not usual—and uses the sun’s orbit as a slingshot to head back towards the earth. It misses and crashes into the dark side of the moon.
There is a little-known space station on this side of the moon, staffed by a single astronaut, Dana Normansson, who decides to investigate the crash. She finds the ship with a dying alien on board and manages to communicate with it.
This book is more than just a narrative. Chapters of a sci-fi story are interwoven into the main plot. At first I thought this was a little random but as I read on, the connection to the rest of the book became clear. Nothing in this book—including the design of the pages and the typefaces used—is random. Emails, Wikipedia pages, NASA transcripts and magazine articles are also incorporated in the book, each with a distinctive look and tone that makes them seem authentic.
Although XX reads like science fiction, it is ultimately a novel about ideas, language and communication. Rian Hughes portrays ideas almost as independent entities that need minds in order to replicate themselves. I love the way he describes how language, when first used, changed the way humans saw the world. “After the coming of the Word, no longer would only the thing itself be the thing. The Word could bring to mind the thing just as vividly in its absence, enabling it to be spoken of, sung, shared around a fire, passed from mouth to mouth and thus travel many leagues.” And this led, eventually, to the ability to express ideas.
As I read the book, I found myself looking at things differently: not just at ideas and language but also at the human body, the way we are built. We assume that our anatomy is fairly standard—two arms, two legs, two ears, two eyes, one nose and one mouth. If you look at how aliens are imagined, many of them are humanoid: they stand upright, and have more or less the same structure as we do. But the aliens in XX are nothing like us, they are truly alien. For example, some of them have a brain divided into two: a forebrain and a hindbrain, the former for trying out new ideas and the latter for storing information, like a hard drive. If a dangerous idea enters the forebrain, the hindbrain can be locked down while the forebrain is purged.
This book is a tour de force. Hughes takes the reader on a journey which also involves astronomy, history and technology (both cutting edge and old, like cassette recorders and an Enigma machine). There is so much I enjoyed about XX but one of my favourites is the three non-human figures who personify the ideas of the last three centuries—the 19th Century Count, XX and Girl, 21. Jack finds a way of giving them digital bodies, and they communicate through text on a computer. These Digital Memetic Entities (DMEn for short) become partners of Jack and his colleagues. (I know this sounds complicated, but it is much clearer in the book.)
I have never read anything like this before. Apart from the narrative, there is also the design: it feels like every page has been thought out. Hughes is a designer of typefaces and has designed 20 of the 91 fonts used in this book. The DMEn each have their own font: the Count uses typefaces that are reminiscent of 19th century posters; XX uses futurist type of the twentieth century; while Girl, 21, communicates in tweets.
There are graphic elements too: a cityscape with rain made out of type with rain depicted in slashes; a drawing of a Rosetta-stone-like tablet found on Easter Island; artworks using words; and a handwritten letter from the 18th century British writer Horace Walpole.
XX is a world of its own. It is nearly a thousand pages, and I thought it would take me a long time to finish, but I could not put it down. It made me think, which is one of the delights of a well-written book.
The book is so complex with many layers that it is hard to do it justice in a short piece. I am amazed at how Hughes manages to put it all together and draw it into a coherent whole. XX is unusual and utterly compelling.
A note for nerds: XX includes a review of a fictional album based on the signal. It’s not fictional anymore! The album was created by DJ Food and Saron Hughes based on the review. It is available here: https://celestialmechanic.bandcamp.com/.