By Zachary Mason
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
385 pages, $27
By Ed Taylor
Rising at the confluence of climate change and digital hacking, Zachary Mason’s second novel “Void Star” imagines Earth’s human future — and it is not a pretty picture. The novel challenges the reader in a variety of ways, mostly good ones, and showcases a distinctive voice, one that inspires interest in what it will say next.
Mason is a Buffalo story; his second novel would not be arriving in this big ticket New York publishing way without the birthing of his first novel by Buffalo literary press Starcherone Books, which closed its doors in 2015.
Starcherone -- a phonetic spelling of “start-your-own” -- was founded by then-Medaille professor Ted Pelton, who had been a University at Buffalo PhD student and was himself an accomplished author of literary fiction including the novel “Malcolm and Jack,” about Malcolm X and Jack Kerouac and a world in which they might have met. Starcherone published a variety of emerging literary talents and also such post-modern icons as Raymond Federman and Steve Katz, and held an annual publication contest, which was won in 2007 by Zachary Mason’s “The Lost Books of the Odyssey,” a first novel composed of enigmatic, poetic, short chapters positing alternative histories and points of view of the Trojan War and Homer’s “Odyssey.”
In 2008 “The Lost Books of the Odyssey” was selected by the New York Public Library as a “Young Lions Fiction Award” finalist and attracted widespread attention in the literary world, including the attention of agents and commercial trade publishers; after its Starcherone debut, publication rights were bought by FSG and it was republished by that house.
Zachary Mason has now entered the literary big time. The outlines of his story have played out over and over as the literary press and magazine world finds and nurtures important writers who then move into the mainstream cultural world.
Mason charts relatively new literary territory that will be increasingly explored in the coming years — the imagining of human consciousness interacting with the digital world that surrounds us, and with artificial intelligence in all its possible iterations, from the internet of things to globe-sized consciousness. What does that look like, and feel like—what are the landscapes of that new terra incognita? Mason plunges confidently and imaginatively into rendering that world—“where cars, buildings, even coffee makers have wills of their own.”
The novel starts with the introduction of three characters—Kern, a street criminal for hire with a samurai’s soul living in San Francisco’s favelas (variations of the Rio slums that are like occupied territories too wild to control but tightly and brutally fenced in); Irina, visiting a client in Los Angeles as a kind of “AI whisperer,” a consultant who specializes in diagnosing problems with AI systems, which she does by entering a fugue state; and Thales, the 18-year old youngest child of an assassinated Brazilian oligarch who was killed in the same attack that killed his father but who is, somehow, still alive and trying to figure things out, also in Southern California.
The three paths eventually meet and overlap and twine together in an odyssey stretching from the U.S. to Asia to Europe and into a game-like digital world.. There is a corporate titan who serves as the antagonist for a byzantine plot, and beyond him are arcane and occult AI higher powers that remain arcane and occult, occluded behind clouds of atmosphere and action. Anyone reading this plot-driven saga and expecting a clear denouement will be frustrated, and perhaps that’s a passé expectation (and maybe always has been). This is all about the journey, and if the reader’s willing, it’s an absorbing ride.
China Mieville comes to mind as a comparable author, someone creating meticulous and wildly imaginative speculative worlds that are experiential rather than traditionally character driven, although he and Mason both create living breathing characters. It’s just that the people driving the action can feel as if they move according to an agenda rather than their own organic lives.
President Trump’s shadow hangs over “Void Star” in the titanic oligarchs who wield power beyond law and geography in obtaining what they want — whether it’s more life, or a cure for a loved one’s disease, or someone else’s memories, or the elimination of a competitor, or to defend themselves from elimination. A character here quotes Plutarch -- “Let no one call himself rich who can’t afford his own army” -- in considering the forces clashing in this world.
“Void Star” posits a dark future that looks eerily like the present, one of crumbling infrastructure, stark economic division, rising seas and extreme weather, and an omnipresent, self-reflecting, monolithic, borderless, digital nation-state that uses the information it constantly gathers to make money, to anesthetize, to distract, and to control -- and evolve -- in ways we have not even begun to understand.
This literary territory may become a new de facto world from which art arises, as civilization grapples with a new force in the universe, aside from the two traditional implacable things that can provide the conflict necessary for narrative: nature and God. This new force has the potential to surpass the most complex creation in the universe we know to date: the human brain.
Mason’s conception here of AI is fascinating—its limiter is only itself and us. In the world of “Void Star,” we stare at each other across the uncanny valley between us, and that other eye never blinks.
Ed Taylor is a local freelance writer and the author of the novel "Theo."