Review of XX by Rian Hughes

At Jodrell Bank Observatory in England, a radio telescope has detected a mysterious signal of extraterrestrial origin—a message that may be the first communication from an interstellar civilization. Has humanity made first contact? Is the signal itself a form of alien life? Could it be a threat? If so, how will the people of Earth respond?

Jack Fenwick, artificial intelligence expert, believes that he and his associates at tech startup Intelligencia can interpret the message a find a way to step into the realm the signal encodes. What they find is a complex alien network beyond anything mankind has imagined. 

Drawing on Dada, punk and the modernist movements of the twentieth century, XX is assembled from redacted NASA reports, artwork, magazine articles, secret transcripts and a novel within a novel. Deconstructing layout and language in order to explore how idea propagate, acclaimed designer and artist Rian Hughes’s debut novel presents a compelling vision of humanity’s unique place in the universe, and a realistic depiction of what might happen in the wake of the biggest scientific discovery in human history. 

Having finished XX this morning I feel a sense of bewilderment and also weirdly, relief that I have made it to the end of nearly 1000 pages. 

XX had all the makings of my new favourite book, the premise is phenomenal and I really enjoy mixed media formats and graphic novels. I started out a little lost but immediately absorbed, I had easily sunk 200 pages without even realising. I loved the backstories of the characters, especially Harriet, learning how they came to be together to unpick this potentially world changing discovery. I also loved Dana and the conspiracy theory sections about what she experienced. The early snippets of wiki entries, interviews and magazine articles were frighteningly true to life with the kind of xenophobia that parts of humanity turn to when they don’t want to just accept that they are scared about what they don’t understand.

The DEMn were fantastically realised, I loved Girl 21 and her tweet style communication the most, her # conveying so much more in a couple of words than any of the others could in several pages, but XX themself I found impossible at times. The science is super-sciency and very in depth, I would presume that there is a high degree of fact and research but who knows! It sounded like it knew what it was talking about although I did feel very lost at times. I did however very much enjoy the use of patterns and how the most seemingly innocuous of breadcrumbs led to an exciting chase across the landmarks of London. I think the reasons why these pattern chasing sections stood out so much was due to the fact that quite a high proportion of the story takes place in a single room.

Downsides for me however though were the huge swathes of exposition which meant the actual story got lost, the use of font for XX’s sections was impossible to read and left me feeling disorientated and I was unimpressed with the comments about using a Burka as a disguise to escape and the use of word rohypnol to explain a lost passage of time. I also hate the fact that for parts of the story XX succeeded in making me just feel stupid

Ultimately for me XX was an amazing story idea which became lost in its need to be something it’s not. At half the size this could have been a really decent fast paced sci-fi thriller, but design is what makes Hughes intrinsically Hughes but sadly this is where it just didn’t work. These were initially the parts I looked forward to for their uniqueness and I wanted to try and unpick the pattern, by the end though i looked forward to them for the very reason that it was a quick way to get through 20 pages.

I feel conflicted because what it did well was done amazingly well but the rest was just too much for me.

Thank you to Black Crow PR and Picador for sending me a copy for review, its a book that I’m glad I read even if my experience fell short of what many others found to be a 5 star read.


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