A book review – “XX” by Rian Hughes

I ordered a book 972 pages long – by mistake. The heft was intimidating, yet it was so enjoyable it is among my fastest reads in recent years. At its heart, “XX – a Novel, Graphic” by Rian Hughes is a book about ideas, but these are as real and solid as ourselves and our experiences. So how do you buy a book by mistake? It’s easy. Trust the first couple of paragraphs of a positive review but skip the rest to avoid spoiling the fun. There are just too many reviews of late neglecting the necessary “spoiler alert.” I thought this was a short graphic novel, but it was really just as advertised – “a novel, graphic.” Every page of XX moves along with a merger of text and presentation. With words as images, XX is a very visual book. To top it off, NASA also plays a role, challenging notions about how we might explore all this universe around us.

Searching for some sci-fi, the premise of XX reeled me right in. We receive an alien signal, setting up the mystery of its origin, what it’s saying, and the intention of the senders. Hughes’s cast of characters is refreshingly simple. The brilliant Jack takes in information for a living, seeing patterns everyone else misses. For our heroic astronaut, there’s Dana Normansson, an allusion perhaps to real-life astronaut Dava Newman. There is also a novel inside the novel, “Ascension,” intermittently spinning a tale on a far-off world. There, the locals have two brains, one as a filter of sorts, for mulling over the day’s experiences before allowing anything further into their other brain holding their sense of self. There are side-bars, news bits, scientific articles, or an interview building the narrative further, all formatted as if jumping to read something else. Just as we take in the world today, jumping from focus near to far to elsewhere, ultra-tasking our moments, so too reading XX asks for attention shifts. 

As Jorge Luis Borges said, “When a writer dies, he becomes his books.”

It’s not far into XX before most readers will suspect what’s happening – the book they are holding is also an alien signal, like with all books, with a challenge to decipher its meaning. But, just as with the unknown signal as a message, it pays off to leap past the obvious. The reminder is there if you are reading XX, or say reading this blog, ideas have jumped across space and time from a far-off origin and are now yours to decrypt – if they motivate such effort. On the other side of that signal, writing can be so much more than just passing along information. As Jorge Luis Borges said, “When a writer dies, he becomes his books.”

This brings us to NASA. NASA is no stranger to alien ideas that come and go, competing for attention, asking to be deciphered. The first decade of my career was very much a series of thoughts that came and went, each one promising to be the giant leap needed to move forward. Ideas spread like viruses across a computer network, except people were the network. At times, we required a dose of virus protection against the management fads, known to be fads by the shortness of their lives. At other times the virus was beneficial, as flora and fauna needed to digest all the data we took in every day. So where once we had a Quality Function Deployment, soon after we had Total Quality Management, mutating into Six-Sigma. Like Omicron after Delta after plain old COVID, there was “lean” Six-Sigma soon after. Except, as some foresaw at the time, one in a million does not translate well when we count launches in the dozens.

I saw other ideas arrive at NASA in the 1990s (many probably only new to me.) Among these were some seemingly simple words – customers and stakeholders. We were encouraged to “ask who our customers are.” The notion withered quickly, sounding conscientious but also sowing confusion. If you work at the Department of the Interior, you learn quickly that an environmental group and a timber company are not customers. Instead, each barely qualifies as a stakeholder. A leap to think tax-payers or laws and your charter are the customers quickly becomes all “there is no spoon.” As with a simulation, an idea standing in for a real thing must, at the least, be helpful.

That the fake vehicle behaved just like the fake paperwork should haunt anyone who does this for a living.

Our simulations came and went with this flow of ideas represented as new ways of doing business besides new launch vehicle technologies. At times we would simulate a vehicle passing step by step towards launch, with doses of new ways of doing business. At other times the simulation was not of the launch vehicle but of the requirements to launch it. After all, no launcher will leave its hanger before its paperwork. Regardless and amazingly, the simulated vehicle, or its simulated requirements devoid of physical form, we got the same answers. That the fake vehicle behaved just like the fake paperwork should haunt anyone who does this for a living. Eventually, a Supply Chain Management view became fashionable, even endemic. Such is the power of ideas, a signal that can change the receiver.

Of course, other ideas arrived in force, especially about how we would or should explore space. A battle between expendable and reusable vehicles continues, much as we debate the balance of robotic vs. crewed space exploration. All of which brings us back to XX – an epic as much about how we define ourselves as what that means when we explore across space and time. 

Such is the scale of XX. We can’t say which route anyone, NASA, industry, or anyone, will ultimately take as we explore “out there.” Perhaps we shouldn’t ask the question this way, as it’s a question more enormous than any organization, or even (dare I say) Elon Musk. The question about paths ahead in our space exploration is for humans to answer. Hughes’s XX revels imagining some answers to the hard questions, even as we have to admit they are really unimaginable.

Other of my favorite first contact novels:

  • Contact by Carl Sagan
  • The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu (Book 1 of a trilogy-all favorites)
  • Existence by David Brin

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