Word Wednesday: ‘XX’ by Rian Hughes

Books Columns Reviews Word Wednesday

This Week’s Word Is “Meme.”

XX by Rian Hughes is a crazy big novel, clocking in at over 900 pages. It’s touted as being sci-fi’s equivalent of cult classics House of Leaves and Infinite Jest, and it reminded me of the meandering masterpieces of Neal Stephenson. XX is a huge book, stuffed with ideas, subtle pop-culture references, and font based trickery. The novel’s subtitle is “A Novel, Graphic,” and Rian Hughes uses his expertise from the comic-book industry and his love of fonts to create a visually arresting novel. This combined with his extensive knowledge of advertising results in an intriguing novel about the power of ideas and how they’re transferred.

The cover for the US edition of XX. Out on November 10th

What Is XX by Rian Hughes?

XX is a doorstop of a book and it definitely (at times at least) feels more like an art installation than a traditional novel. It is also out-and-out science fiction, with a very golden-era sci-fi feel, though with a very (post)modern twist.

The novel has two main strands that wind together a short way into the novel. First is a mysterious signal received from space, picked up by the Jodrell Bank telescope in England. Less than a minute long, this signal of digital noise explodes onto the world’s consciousness after its existence is leaked. What is the signal? and Where did it come from? are two questions that drive the novel’s narrative.

In the other strand, we have an IT start-up in Hoxton, London, hipster central. “Intelligencia – Memetic engineering,” a company of three people, two of whom are quasi-geniuses at the forefront of A.I. engineering. Jack is fascinated by pattern recognition and the transference of ideas. When he starts to see messages in the everyday objects around him, he builds and codes a machine that can capture the entities that are trying to talk to him. When he does, he discovers ideas with substance that can communicate. Jack calls them Digital Memetic Entities or DMEn for short (Say “DMEn” out loud for an indication of the linguistic playfulness that Hughes brings to his novel.) Through the DMEn, Rian Hughes allows his love of typography to shine through. They talk to Jack and his colleagues using different fonts or in the 21st Century meme’s case, via Twitter. 

And that’s before the aliens arrive. 

Before working for Intelligencia, Jack had done some coding work with Daniel Novak, the head of Jodrell Bank. Daniel brings in Jack for his pattern recognition expertise to see if he can decode anything in The Signal. We learn early in the novel that NASA and other space agencies are keeping secrets and that an alien lifeform has crashed on the moon. But what what relation does this bear to The Signal and can Dana, a lone astronaut on a manned moon base, communicate with the alien? Well, yes, but things don’t go to plan. 

Many things in the world of XX affect the narrative in a variety of interesting ways.

Why Read XX by Rian Hughes?

Much like House of Leaves or Infinite Jest, reading XX is an undertaking. It reminded me very much of a Neal Stephenson novel too: a rambling investigation into a host of ideas that tie together into a thematic whole. A book you put down and think, “Whoa,” but may on occasion have wondered, as you read through, whether it was going to be worth the effort.  

XX is worth the effort.

It’s never a hard read, but you sometimes can’t help but wish it had had a tighter edit. It does meander, and the final destination (which is pretty amazing, it must be said) is so far away from the beginning of the book, it can be hard to remember how you got there. I mean this both literally and figuratively. It took me over 3 weeks to read XX, but also many of the characters go on huge journeys. By the time I’d read to the end, it was hard to remember where everything had started!

If you enjoy random asides, you’ll love this book. There are no footnotes, as in Infinite Jest, but the main narrative is interspersed with all manner of media sources, whether they be centuries old letters, newspaper clippings, or ranting on conspiracy theory websites. There are also transcripts, surveillance records and, redacted secret service reports added in to give yet more variety.

Just one double page of the typographical shenanigans that occur inside of XX.

Even more peculiarly, there is an entire science fiction story, serialized in 7 or 8 parts, that is meant to be from an Interzone-style SF periodical. If all that wasn’t enough, there is even a QR code in the book that you can scan to take you to an album of music created using the code of The Signal. The 4th wall is broken down from time to time too, but the effects are often so subtle, you find yourself wondering how many other cracks you’ve missed. The depth of detail and the extent of the playfulness in XX is most impressive.

If you’re happy to absorb yourself in quirky details, soak up random bits of information about maths, astronomy, physics, and computing then this is most definitely a book for you. If you’re interested in the way information travels on the internet or how ideas gain traction and proliferate, then there’s a lot here for you too. If you’re looking for a metaphysical story about alien conquest, and inter galactic spacefaring, you’ll find it in XX. It’s all of these things, and more, which is why it’s such a big book. The road is far from straight but the views on the journey are magnificent.

You can pick up a copy of XX from November 10th in the US and in the UK, now.

If you enjoyed this post, do check out my other Word Wednesday reviews. 

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review. All Bookshop.Org links are affiliate links.


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