Void Star, the second novel by Zachary Mason, is a dizzying, astonishing read. Though published as “literary fiction” (meaning, you won’t find it shelved with the other sci-fi books), it makes no effort to hide its roots in the classics of early cyberpunk with its poetic prose; intricate mind-bender plotting; and meditations on memory, both real and cybernetic. But it ventures far beyond mere trope signaling; it’s near-to-overloaded with vivid descriptions, and intense economy of language, and enough action to satisfy adrenaline junkies and technothriller fans alike. The result is a compulsive read that rewards multiple trips through its labyrinthine depths. It’s one of the best cyberpunk novels in recent memory.
Void Star begins with three relatively separate plotlines: Irina, a freelance contractor who converses with artificial intelligence on behalf of corporations, finds a strange node connected to what should be a relatively simple power company’s AI. Kern, a street thug from the drone-constructed favelas of San Francisco, robs a mark of an unusual cell phone and finds himself stalked by a group of ruthless hired killers. And Thales, the son of a wealthy Brazilian magnate, wakes up in the hospital after an assassination attempt, his memories jumbled by a newly installed cybernetic implant. As each investigates their circumstances and tries to stay one step ahead of shadowy pursuers, they are set on a collision course by a recurring image— a vast, alien city floating in the middle of a black ocean. What this city is, and what it has to do with their various troubles, will lead them all through dangerous territory, virtual and real, and put them in contact with forces beyond human understanding.
Mason’s prose sings like poetry. Each chapter is a gorgeous story in miniature, awash in sensory detail. From the refugee slums of San Francisco to the glittering hills of Los Angeles, Mason brings the same beauty and lyricism to a high-end dinner as an illegal boxing match in Thailand. His mere sentences somehow convey paragraphs-worth of detail, as his descriptions display an intense sensory focus. Each short, propulsive chapter is a journey through a veritable forest of complex meaning and imagery, dense to an almost dizzying level.
This intricacy of language adds new layers to a complex narrative. In each chapter, Mason makes reference to sensations, memories, or events from the previous chapters, building the plot block-by-block in ways not always immediately obvious, but perfectly logical when placed into the proper context. It’s an ingenious way of encourage us to follow along on this mind-warping, where false memories and virtual worlds abound, without too much handholding. When the entity behind the spider’s nest of interweaving conflicts is finally revealed, it’s possible to trace the threads their schemes back to the beginning—it’s a plan intricate and subtle enough to make sense only once you can step back to take in the whole grand design, and the results are immensely satisfying.
While some thrillers require their characters to act like idiots, only to suffer a blinding realization once they’ve hit a certain page number, Mason has engineered a plot in which his protagonists are more or less confident and competent in what they know, and are pitted against a villain that’s more or less able to predict how and where they’ll jump based on those facts. It genuinely terrifying to imagine a villain that knows its foes so well, it can count on them to do exactly what it wants them to do.
This is a book that wears its influences—Gibson, certainly; Stephenson, undoubtedly—proudly, but creates its own fascinating, intricate world. It’s a breakneck surreal cyberpunk ride exploring the intricate relationship between memory, humanity, and reality, with a command of language and genre rivaling K.W. Jeter and M, John Harrison in craft. To borrow from computer parlance, to miss it would be risking a fatal error.