XX review: A picture paints a thousand words - SciFiNow

XX review: A picture paints a thousand words

Following the story of a man trying to decipher a mysterious signal from space, here’s our review Rian Hughes’ visual spectacle, XX.


As much as the world has embraced the Kindle (other e-readers are available) there’s something about a real book. A book is a collection of ideas given physical form; the texture of the pages, the crack of the spine as you reach the halfway point, even the font – each one, no matter how subtle, all inform your perception and understanding of the idea within it.

In his debut novel, Rian Hughes takes this idea to a new level – XX is a book that is not just written, it’s designed (which is handy given Hughes’ background as a graphic designer.) Every single page has been meticulously crafted, appearing exactly as the author intends and not a single piece of punctuation is without point or purpose.

The book is promoted as ‘A Novel: Graphic’ and with Hughes’ background also incorporating comic books (he has designed title text for some of the big two’s top tier books, including Batman And Robin and Spider-Man), the description is not without irony. However, whereas in comics the words are supplemented with images to enhance the story, in XX the words ARE the images. Rather than printing a story in the generic Times New Roman of which we’re all familiar, Hughes uses different fonts, different font sizes and different layouts on nearly every page to tell a more involved story.

This is not to say the book is all style no substance. XX’s story centres on ‘The Signal’, a transmission received from space – lines of code that are not of this earth. Proof that we are not alone. When the UK space agency’s top bods can’t figure out what the signal is (let alone where it’s from) a leaked copy finds its way onto the internet. Soon it falls into the hands of Jack, a computer genius working in a Shoreditch start-up where he and his small band of coders are trying to break through into the world of AI and cutting edge video games.

In their attempts to decipher the signal, it quickly becomes apparent that the transmission is not a message from aliens… it IS the aliens. This is an invasion, but not a physical one. An invasion of alien ideas seeping into human minds and our only source of protection are Jack’s DME’n (Digital Memetic Entities): a semi-sentient coalescence of all of human history’s ideas in digitally anthropomorphised form.

What starts to unfold is a brilliant mash-up of 2016’s Arrival and Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, with Jack applying his unique skill of seeing patterns where there are none to decipher the alien code… and you better keep up. Each chapter brings new revelations, new layers and new questions. There are occasions when the story can almost run away from itself, getting lost in its own introspection but this is where the careful crafting of the book’s structure pays dividends, with Hughes quickly shifting focus and theme mid-chapter, making sure to divert over-complex ideas away from convolution.

XX is an experiment, it’s an experience. It’s an idea made flesh and the quality of its execution is a testament to Rian Hughes’ ability to realise a true creative vision. What is a more pleasant surprise is the quality of the story itself, bouncing around the great sci-fi tropes while never feeling cliché and inventing a few brand-new concepts of its own…

‘XX’ is out now in the UK from Picador, and in November from Overlook Press in the US. 

Get it on Apple Books