(2020) Rian Hughes, Picador, £14.99, trdpbk, 977pp, ISBN 978-1-509-88967-9
Every now and then a book appears that tries to go beyond its prose format, to play not only with narrative structure but also the form of the message. I’m thinking Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1956) John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), for example.
XX is one of those.
Whilst the initial story is nothing new, the way it is delivered is simply stunning. The beginning is straight out of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass or perhaps Fred Hoyle’s A for Andromeda. At Jodrell Bank a mysterious signal of extra-terrestrial origin has been detected.
Jack Fenwick, artificial intelligence expert and on the autistic spectrum, thinks he can decode it.
But when he and his associates at Hoxton tech start-up Intelligencia find a way to step into the alien realm the signal encodes, they discover that it’s already occupied. There are ghostly entities known as ‘DMEn’ (Digital Memetic Entities) that may come from our own past. Have these ‘DMEn’ (Digital Memetic Entities) been created by persons unknown for such an eventuality? As the book continues we are set the quandry - are these DMEn our first line of defence in a coming war, not for territory, but for our minds?
As perhaps should be expected in our 21st century society, the means of collecting data and then deciphering it comes from many sources. This book plays on this by giving us a plethora of wide and often dissimilar sources of information so that the reader, like Jack, has to decipher the mystery themselves.
Facts and fiction combine, and we get stories within stories to such a level that I’ve not seen since Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. There are imaginary transcripts from NASA debriefs, newspaper and magazine articles, fictitious Wikipedia pages and even a non-fictional seventeenth century treatise called Cometographia by a real Johannis Hevelius, fictional book covers and even a spread on the (so far) undeciphered written language of Easter Island, Rongorongo, from a book called Language Lost: Undeciphered Scripts of the Ancient World.
Along the way we are shown elements of science, popular culture, comments on small business and social media. Texts and pictures zoom along, across, up and down the pages, interspersed with sources written in different styles to give a broader, fuller understanding of the context in which this story is being played out.
It would be easy to claim that this is an example of style over substance, that the graphic dimension to the novel detracts from the telling of the tale: the book is packed with line drawings and a mix of text and graphics. But I found it clever and fascinating how all these disparate elements combine to get to the ending.
Stunningly imaginative, yet dramatically engaging, XX is a book that is more than a book. It has to be seen in its printed format to get a better idea of how it works, as I’m pretty sure that an e-copy or an audio version would not show the book's visual depth and the thinking that has gone into this.
At 977 pages, often in small print, XX is not for the fainthearted. Admittedly, some of those pages have visual graphics, and documents that go beyond the usual text format, but even so the novel could be intimidating. Those intrigued will find sifting the information and the puzzles they contain as much fun as reading the novel, although I must say that there are many red herrings to discover and blind alleyways to travel before reaching the end of this story, as the reader finds themselves following the same ideas and processes as Jack and his colleagues.
Reading XX is an immersive experience so that I found it difficult to put down, coming back to it time and again after mulling on what I had read previously. One that I thought of for a long time after reading, I suspect that it will be one that repays repeated reading, too. Seriously impressive.
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