Void Star is, quite simply, an epic of cyberspace. Building on the foundations laid by William Gibson in his cyberpunk masterpiece Neuromancer, Zachary Mason propels his reader into a futuristic world moulded by anti-ageing clinics, disintegrating cityscapes, drones, implants, dangerous networks, AI, and secret corporations. But what is truly impressive about Void Star, above its socio-political commentary and its deft prophetic insights into future civilisation, is its mythic quality. By that, I mean that Void Star attains a profound spiritual and emotional depth. Science Fiction is sometimes burdened with its emphasis on inhuman elements, forgetting the human amidst the drama of machine, society and technology. Void Star manages to retain the emotional, cathartic dimensions to the narrative with a cast of compelling three-dimensional characters, whilst never losing its edge.
At over 180,000 words, Void Star is an epic in scope as much as power and narrative drive. With an ambitious three viewpoint characters: Thales, Kern, and Irina, as well as a large ensemble of other characters, it remains surprisingly focused and lucid, though at times I struggled to follow the minutiae of some of the intrigue. It’s three protagonists are wildly different people and all of them extremely likeable, even for their significant faults. We root for them instinctively. Irina is reminiscent of the resourceful heroine of Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard. Her implant allows her to access networks wirelessly, interfere with machines and talk to AI. Thales is a young tech-guy, without a past, unsure of why the events in his life are so disjointed and out of sync with the rest of the world. Kern is a boxer, a religious devotee of training and discipline, an orphan, whose education is solely derived from a video-game. The genius of this? The final level of the video-game, where one must defeat the Shadow Clan leader in order to access a digital library of all the world’s books, takes place on the farthest satellite orbiting Earth: the Void Star.
Is your mind bending yet? This is only the beginning. Rather like Jeff Vadermeer’s Annihilation, whose title continually acquires meaning the farther you read, Void Star shows that it is not the bombastic Space Opera its title might have suggested. Through the course of the book Zachary Mason manages to quietly, but certainly, invite you to start questioning all your preconceptions. Kern learnt everything he knows from a video-game, a virtual reality, and yet that experience is valid and has gotten him through scrapes time and time again. Is there, then, a difference between virtual reality and reality? These questions arise through all the characters. Irina’s implant means she has perfect memory, can recall anything with the precision of a computer saving a document. When she experiences memory, like the ‘hosts’ in Westworld, it is like re-living it, like being there. What, then, is the difference between remembering and experiencing? Thales is the opposite: he can’t remember anything, has only the dimmest sense of what he is supposed to be doing at any given time. How then, can he be defined as a person without memories? Is he, in fact, even human?
The prose is excruciatingly elegant. The imagery is hieroglyphic, embedded with meaning and narrative: ‘Irina dreams of blue rubber globed hands, the rush of pure oxygen, and the pain, perceived through the shock and anaesthesia as a terrible cold, a continent of ice afloat in dark water.’ (p.20) Once again, Zachary Mason echoes Gibson with his pinpoint precision, technical language, and his effortlessly modern grandeur. Where they differ, slightly, is that Void Star is more cinematic in style, moving between characters almost like snappy film editing, never lingering too long on one thread, whereas Gibson tends to run with one character for long stretches, carrying us along with a different kind of urgency. The excitement Void Star builds is infectious, especially as you near the middle and latter thirds of the book, as the threads start to draw together and you see, sprawling like some kind of digital spider’s web, the immense interconnectedness of events and people. Though the start may be slow for some, it’s worth perseverance.
Throughout, the socio-political commentary is on point – with the unjust dissection of rich and poor (the rich protected by drones in the higher echelons of the city, the poor left to starve in the slums), the crumbling of civilised existence beneath the literal weight of development (the cities continually grow up causing the lower strata to be buried or submerged in seawater). There is also a spiritual discussion going here. The AI, manipulating everything invisibly and whom only certain chosen ‘gifted’ people can talk to, represent mythological gods, who must be appeased or defeated for the heroes to get what they want. Zachary Mason’s first book The Lost Books of the Odyssey, in which he re-imagines the Homeric epic The Odyssey, showed his love of the classical canon, and this persists through Void Star as we discover a story that is as much about the heroism of defying the metaphorical gods as it is about a future society. Through all this, emotion is never lost amidst the dazzling visuals and plot machinations. There is a scene very early in Void Star that actually made me weep. The ending, too, delivers a kind of subdued pathos, a sense of things lost but also of being found, that lingers with you.
If I have criticisms of Void Star, it is that perhaps too much of the end-game action takes place in cyberspace. Though this was undoubtedly necessary in order for the story to run its natural course, and extensively set up, I felt the boundaries between cyberspace and reality were not always clearly demarcated, which meant I had to go back and re-read a couple of passages to be sure what was happening. Then again, this blurring is kind of the point of the novel, and many characters including Irina and Thales already seem to occupy a nebulous space between reality and the digital world, which, increasingly, is seen to be the fate of all humanity.
I also felt there were a couple of instances where cyberspace becomes a kind of ‘get out of jail free card’ for some of the characters, allowing manipulation of events in such drastic ways that it escapes consequence. Having said that, it’s a careful balance between being true to the possibilities of technology and remaining grounded, and the story is still immensely satisfying despite this small glitch. Again, this manipulation is itself a theme of Void Star, tying in with an exploration of destiny, probability and prophecy. We are certain, at times, we know who the true agent of change is in the novel, who the villain is controlling and instigating, but more than once the rug gets pulled from under our feet. A deeper game at play.
‘Void Star’ is an oxymoron: death versus life, emptiness versus fullness, destruction versus creation, meaninglessness versus the timeless quest of humanity to understand our ‘place in the stars’. This juxtaposition is at the heart of almost every scene in Void Star. You’ll ask yourself, What is the meaning of Void Star, the final level of what Kern only ever refers to as ‘the game’? To answer that question, one feels, would be to unravel the entire meaning of the novel.
And with it, human existence.
Zachary Mason, author of the novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, is a computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence. He was a finalist for the 2008 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. He lives in California.
Void Star was published by Jonathan Cape on 27th April 2017.
To discover more about Jonathan Cape click here…
Review by Joseph Sale
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