Void Star: An ambitious, richly imagined world of wealthy, poor and AIs

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Void Star by Zachary MasonVoid Star by Zachary Mason

Void Star (2017) is a brilliant, dense and challenging hard science fiction novel with a literary bent, rich in descriptions and imagery. It’s set in a relatively near future, perhaps a hundred years or so in our future. The chapters alternate between the viewpoints of three characters from vastly different social strata:

  • Irina has a vanishingly rare type of cranial implant that enables her to communicate wirelessly with computers, from the simplest electronic devices to the most complex artificial intelligences, in addition to giving her perfect recall ― a true photographic memory. She’s an independent consultant who acts as a troubleshooter for people who are having trouble with their information systems and AIs. But now her latest employer, a vastly wealthy and powerful tycoon, is mounting a chillingly deadly effort to capture her for some unknown but ominous-sounding purpose.
  • Kern is one of the numberless poverty-stricken masses who live in favelas outside of the cities, formed of concrete walls and rooms many layers deep. With the help of programs and videos on a scrounged laptop, he has relentlessly trained himself in martial arts, and gets by doing odd enforcement and theft jobs. His latest job, a simple theft of a particular phone, goes bad, and he, like Irina, is on the run, helped by a mysterious woman who coaches him through the phone on where to go and what to do. Oddly, she doesn’t seem to recognize him when they finally meet in person.
  • Thales is the youngest son of the former Brazilian Prime Minister, who died in an attack that also left Thales damaged. He’s mathematically brilliant but having memory issues, and is now under medical care in Los Angeles. He, too, has a cranial input that assists his memory and saved his life. But when a ragged stranger accosts him at a hotel, telling him that they are both victims and asking him (before being dragged away by guards) how much he remembers, he realizes that other than a few random memories, he recalls nothing of his life before he was brought to Los Angeles.

These three characters and their plot threads are entirely disconnected at first, only gradually beginning to weave together deep in the story, as the reader is illuminated, along with the characters, that all may not be as it seems.

Void Star contains all kinds of fascinating ideas woven into a complex and rather opaque plot: Climate changes that have made many places unrecognizable. Rejuvenation treatments offered by a future version of the Mayo Clinic that can keep you youthful well into your second hundred years, but are prohibitively expensive for most people ― and if you try to start the treatments too late or miss even one of your annual visits, you’re done for. Automated drones and self-driving automobiles make life easier, at least for those who have resources.

But the world of Void Star is dominated by the AIs, independent of humans and impossibly complex (they’ve been manufacturing and upgrading themselves for several generations), and the ability (and sometimes curse) of people who have implants, allowing them to enter the virtual reality of cyberspace and communicate, to some limited degree, with the AIs that inhabit that space.

… she turns on her implant’s wireless, is instantly aware of the constellations of the thousands of nearby machines. She scans through them and finds the elevator and sees that its software hasn’t been updated in years – infrastructure, she’s noticed, is often lost in the shuffle. She tells it lies like bad patterns whispered in its ear, and it’s soon persuaded that she’s a long overdue maintenance program sent by the manufacturer and by the time the elevator starts to slow it’s entirely hers and she’s never been happier about committing a felony.

In Kern’s laptop game, the “Void Star” is the ultimate challenge, where the final battle with the Lord of Shadows awaits, which has its analog in the plot of this novel. The phrase “Void Star” is also a reference to void * in C and C++ software programming: it’s a pointer to an unspecified type of memory location, which is a a programming technique for more easily building a solution, but a risky one. As one programming website comments, “[t]he disadvantage of using void * is that you throw type safety out the window and into oncoming traffic.” This concept, too, is echoed in the plot of Void Star.

Void Star is an ambitious, literary book that will frustrate some readers and delight others. It reminds me of some of Neal Stephenson‘s work, particularly The Diamond Age (to which Kern’s laptop experience owes a clear debt), although I think Zachary Mason has crafted a much better ending. The language is often ornate and the concepts can be tricky to grasp. Sometimes the details threaten to overwhelm, particularly where the overall picture is elusive, only partially revealed until late in the book. It’s also a claustrophobic world, one where danger is always around the corner, and where what seems to be real may or may not be so. The plot got a little murky at times, but Void Star is so creative and intriguing, with such distinctive characters and ideas, that I loved it anyway. It’s already luring me in for a reread, to see how much more is revealed the second time around.

Published April 11, 2017. A riveting, beautifully written, fugue-like novel of AIs, memory, violence, and mortality. Not far in the future the seas have risen and the central latitudes are emptying, but it’s still a good time to be rich in San Francisco, where weapons drones patrol the skies to keep out the multitudinous poor. Irina isn’t rich, not quite, but she does have an artificial memory that gives her perfect recall and lets her act as a medium between her various employers and their AIs, which are complex to the point of opacity. It’s a good gig, paying enough for the annual visits to the Mayo Clinic that keep her from aging. Kern has no such access; he’s one of the many refugees in the sprawling drone-built favelas on the city’s periphery, where he lives like a monk, training relentlessly in martial arts, scraping by as a thief and an enforcer. Thales is from a different world entirely—the mathematically inclined scion of a Brazilian political clan, he’s fled to L.A. after the attack that left him crippled and his father dead. A ragged stranger accosts Thales and demands to know how much he can remember. Kern flees for his life after robbing the wrong mark. Irina finds a secret in the reflection of a laptop’s screen in her employer’s eyeglasses. None are safe as they’re pushed together by subtle forces that stay just out of sight. Vivid, tumultuous, and propulsive, Void Star is Zachary Mason’s mind-bending follow-up to his bestselling debut, The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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6 comments

  1. this sounds really intriguing–thanks!

  2. Heather Hicks /

    I would really like this one I think. I love the idea of it. I am currently reading a book by Sara Pascoe called Being A Witch and Other Things I Didn’t Ask For. It’s been fantastic, I’ve really enjoyed it but since I am nearly done I need to find another great read!

    • If the idea appeals to you, I think you’ll probably really enjoy it, Heather. I was going to mention in my review, but forgot, that Zachary Mason is a computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence. So he definitely knows his stuff.

  3. This book is for me!

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