Void Star

Oftentimes a writer’s whole career is implicit in his or her first novel, the lineaments of their vision plain from the start — at other times, a debut book can be a one-off or represent an early vector that will suddenly bend ninety degrees and accelerate from zero to sixty.

Zachary Mason’s admirable first novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, was a pre-technological meditation on archaic yet eternal themes and characters and moods from Homer’s masterpiece. Quiet and dreamy, unhurried, its prose more cool than hot, showing levels of metafictional playfulness, it seemed the work of a young John Barth.

The only chapter that might have hinted at what was to come was Chapter 15, “The Myrmidon Golem.” In this section, Odysseus and a pal construct “a clay simulacrum of Achilles . . . They lured a pretty young slave girl to the cellar with hints of assignation and preferment, and cut her throat as soon as she walked in the door. They hollowed out a cavity in the golem’s chest and filled it with her blood so that the golem could partake of her bloom.” Alas, all does not go well. “In the confusion of battle, [the golem Achilles] sometimes killed at random, ignoring the Greeks’ terrified, indignant cries, and so he became feared by Greek and Trojan alike.”

This Daedalus/Dr. Frankenstein−inspired parable, with its vision of a literally heartless, cruelty-based killing technology run amok, points us at least somewhat in the direction of Mason’s sophomore novel, Void Star. A post-cyberpunk, post-singularity conspiracy tale that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with similar recent work by Max Barry, Nick Harkaway, Neal Stephenson, Paolo Bacigalupi, Matt Ruff, Ariel Winter, and Ryan Boudinot, Void Star resides as far from his first book as the year 2017 is distant from the simple heroism and primal societies of Homer’s time.

Contextual clues reveal that the book is set at least one hundred years into our dilapidated, delirious, decadent, yet defiant future: time for much to change, yet not so far as to render a scene wholly unconnected to the recognizable passions and problems of 2017. Many of this distant era’s projected saliences are familiar from canonical cyberpunk works. Realpolitik savagery as the norms of the nation-state collapse, and the establishment of zones of anarchy and temporary autonomy. The privileging of wealth and corporate sovereignties. The dominance of artificial intelligences and growing essentiality of the virtual/networked sphere. The ethical quandaries of the freelancer, the deracinated solo agent in a gig economy, desperate for survival. The deterioration of the ecosystem and the Baudrillardian proliferation of hyperreality and estrangement from nature. These tropes, first explored fictionally over thirty years ago, in the seminal works by Gibson, Sterling, et al., might seem like yesterday’s news. But Mason’s fresh burnishing of them, his willingness to invest some deep thoughts into how the last three decades have mutated these omnipresent trends, makes all of it new again. The book reads like an up-to-the-minute report from the battlefronts of a perpetual war we tend to ignore, so much in our faces is it.

Mason’s narrative is tripartite, threading together over time the destinies of its at first seemingly unrelated characters. Employing short, punchy chapters that alternate viewpoints with near-metronomic regularity (some gaps in the rotating pattern are necessitated by the plotting), the story unfolds with a sense of both unpredictability and fatedness that most novels would find hard to sustain, and which is all the more pleasing when deftly accomplished, as here.

The three protagonists receive almost equal page time, but I still get the sense of Mason assigning them different priorities in terms of their centrality to events.

First up is Irina Sunden, a well-off professional with an almost unique niche: she deals with “the inner lives of AIs.” These powerful yet surprisingly not dictatorial software entities have transcended human limits, and insofar as their motives and plans can be understood, an AI-whisperer like Irina — who possesses a special implant to aid in her work — is essential.

She remembers the Metatemetatem, an AI that makes other AIs, owned by a Vancouver research lab from her last gig but one. Metatemetatem is a name given to a class of AIs that burn through trillions of possibilities a second in search of the shape of their successors; every Metatemetatem had been designed by its predecessor for some thousand generations and ninety years. There must have been some definite moment when they’d passed beyond the understanding of even the subtlest mathematician, though when this happened is a matter of debate — all that’s certain is that no one noticed at the time. Now most of the world’s software, and, lately, its industrial design, comes from machines that are essentially ineffable, though only a handful of specialists seem to realize this, or care, the world in general blithely unaware that the programs and devices that mediate their lives have emerged from mystery.

Given this job of ministering to machines, Irina seems a direct and deliberate literary descendant of Asimov’s Dr. Susan Calvin. Her latest client is a billionaire named Cromwell, who turns out to have a very specific interest in Irina and her implant, and after a dramatic foiled kidnapping, Irina is forced to flee her lush life in L.A. while still fighting back on the run.

Kern is a poverty-enmeshed thief, living in a shabby West Coast favela, adept in a kind of urban parkour and self-taught martial arts mastery. Tasked with grabbing a victim’s phone that turns out to be of more than ordinary value, he finds himself tracked by deadly assailants. When the phone begins addressing him in the persona of a Japanese woman named Akemi and offering to help him escape his pursuers, he has little choice but to accept the aid. (One hears echoes of the instructive intelligent Primer in Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.) Soon he will be traveling further and into very different social strata than he ever expected.

Last up is a Brazilian mathematical prodigy named Thales. After being severely wounded in the assassination of his father, he receives a brain implant like Irina’s. Coming to the USA for his safety, he begins to suspect that his actions are being controlled by the surgeon who saved him. When he encounters an enigmatic woman named Akemi, his life rapidly splits at the seams.

These three figures will survive numerous incidents of violence, both psychological and corporeal, in their quest to understand Cromwell’s schemes and counter them. The first half of the book is centered in California, with the second half opening up to other international venues. Finely sketched subsidiary characters will be deployed as well, among them Philip, Irina’s college-era pal; Hiro, a mercenary; and Maya, Irina’s agent. The climax finds Irina undertaking a hero’s quest in a virtual reality, climbing a metaphorical mountain to meet the master mathematician behind everything.

Besides providing a compelling plot, Mason scatters speculative insights and observations liberally, as the best SF writers do. For instance, he does not make the mistake of assuming his fancy new technologies are eternal, or even dominant in the moment. One case is the implant that Irina has; it’s already dead tech. “Only a few dozen people ever got her kind, less than ten are left, and she dreads questions. (Even the simplest implants are getting phased out — you used to need one to be a combat officer in the Marines, but the technology never really matured and now no one much uses them.)” At one point Kern goes to ground at the base of a defunct space elevator. Akemi explains: “[It’s the] space elevator. At least, it was going to be. Basically it’s a giant cable going up into low orbit — it was supposed to be a cheap alternative to rockets, but between the deflating economy and some spectacular failures of engineering it never actually got used. The cable still goes up into space, but now it just sort of sits here.” This recognition that all our beloved gadgets are transitory is a valuable one.

And here’s Mason’s depiction of your standard Third World hellhole, like 2017 Syria or Afghanistan amped up to the max:

Officially, the Thai army is defending the nation’s territorial integrity against a salad of narcotraffickers, rebellious indigenes, bandits and incursions from what had been Burma and is now, he gathers, fucked. In practice, according to the chatter on the net, it’s a free-for-all, the combatants indifferent to nationalism, tribalism and warmed-over post-Marxism, their chaotic melees driven solely by a roaring trade in opium. An often repeated quote on the boards is “If you want to bring peace to Southeast Asia, make better synthetic heroin.”

Combining these impressive off-the-cuff aperçus with startling imagery, vibrant characters, and consequential deeds, all couched in gorgeous, smoothly polished, poetic and sensual language, Mason engineers a near-perfect SF machine.

One final resonance lies with that master who underpinned so much of the first-generation cyberpunk work, Thomas Pynchon. At one point Irina gets a glimpse of urban geography’s visionary secrets: “A pattern in the flawed latticework of lights, something deeper than the incidental geometry of buildings and streetlight, to which the city has, unwitting, conformed itself, and, with this revelation, what she had taken for single lights expand into constellations, and each of their lights is a constellation in itself, luminescent forms in an endless descent, and the city is like a nebula, radiant with meaning, and this is how she finally knows she’s dreaming.

Compare that passage with Oedipa Maas’s famous observation in The Crying of Lot 49:

She thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out) . . .

Like Pynchon, Zachary Mason is determined to probe at the existential heart of our modern conundrum, even if it means confronting the void star at the core of our ultimately unknowable predicament.