Thursday, September 7, 2017

Paul Rowe reviews cli-fi novel VOID STAR by Zachary Mason

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Reviewed: Void Star, by Zachary Mason. Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 4/17. Paperback $17.70, 400pp.
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On April.10.2017, Paul Rowe reviewed the novel this way:

Myth, Memory, and the Maze

Set in the late 22nd century Zachary Mason's Void Star is a phantasmal and speculative romp through a futurescape wherein drones patrol destitute favelas in Southern California and human memory is confiscated by rogue AIs. The novel's daring percipience is dreamlike in its sheer vastness. Much like his rebel AIs, Mason is entirely cognizant of his own subversions.
Throughout the novel, nothing is as it appears for readers. The insidious corporate quasi-villain Cromwell is motivated by visions of immortality, yet the true forces of danger in the novel become progressively sublime, existing just outside the realm of our human capacity for knowledge, lurking within the dark undercurrents of human progress as ephemeral AIs only approachable in cyberspace in form of glyphs; symbolic and mythic, these AIs—“the magician,” Cloudbreaker, and “the mathematician”—are disembodied entities that seek to break the code of human civilization by infiltrating the memory implants of humans, stealing both their memories and their limited comprehension of their own natures. Here, “glyphs” are both the esoteric hieroglyphs of cyberspace deciphered by Mason's gifted heroine and the ornamental carvings on the Greek frieze that tell us stories of our ancient past.

Mason's admission of the transient sea of data, the perpetual crashing of breakers of information against the shore of human perception, is spectacular. The propulsive force of his prose, a progression from his first novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, drives readers onward into the ever-deepening mystery of Void Star. Readers will brew another pot of coffee into the wee hours of the morning to discover how these characters eventually converge to prevent a sprawling, threatening conspiracy.
The chapters here are brief, the novel itself gargantuan. Void Star's globetrotting struggle to prevent AIs from stealing the memories, and therefore the lives, of three protagonists—gifted computer specialist Irina Sunden; martial arts fighter, thief, and refugee Kern; heir of an assassinated Brazilian politician with a memory implant Thales—is expansive, mythic, and suspenseful.
Martial arts expert and monk-like Kern stumbles upon an international conspiracy involving AIs when he unknowingly comes into possession of a mobile phone holding the key to everything. After evading a hit on his life, Kern receives a call from “the ghost,” a young Japanese woman named Akemi transmitting from an empty house where she is held captive by a renegade AI.

Meanwhile, a talented computer specialist named Irina Sunden possessing the ability to communicate with AIs and connect her consciousness to wireless networks courtesy of a cranial memory implant while working as a “computational translator,” becomes embroiled in an intense struggle with James Cromwell, a quixotic and dangerous CEO seeking immortality at all costs. When Sunden meets with Cromwell about fixing one of Cromwell's malfunctioning AIs, she discovers there are darker intentions beneath the surface. Sunden uncovers a larger threat in the form of a self-aware AI named “the mathematician” attempting to infiltrate the sphere of humanity via the hijacking of human memory.

Mason's unlikely heroes converge across vast Earthly and ephemeral expanses. After narrowly escaping death, Thales is fitted with a memory implant to save his life. Soon, Thales realizes that his implant is causing his capacity for memory to slowly decline, eventually journeying to San Francisco to discover who is manipulating his life and for what purposes. There, he meets Irina, who has come into contact with Akemi, the ghostly figure in wireless communication with Kern. The labyrinthine conspiracy that unfolds is mythic, and Mason's uncanny passion for myth thankfully seeps into the thematic fabric of the novel. Theseus-like, Kern follows Akemi's guiding threads through dark subterranean caverns, the monster within the labyrinth always existing just outside his field of perception. Kern explores Arthurian legend, samurai etiquette, and Greek mythology to find his place in Mason's shattered world. Kern's somewhat determined, yet flummoxed, heroism is endearing for readers:
The ground rises as he approaches the tower; he looks back over his shoulder at the ruined city and the sea. He reminds himself he's literally exploring a jungle-choked lost city, which is a real adventure by any standard, but the experience is emptier than he'd expected. Did Arthur's knights ever slouch on their horses, worn by boredom, their thoughts a jumble of past battles and old loves?
Like Arthur's knights before him, Kern relentlessly seeks ideals that are “vaguely defined… expression[s] of [his own] purity.” In this light, all of Mason's heroes are void stars searching for inner sparks in refractions of light, crystalline surfaces of oceans, the thin veneer of laptop screens. Just like Irina catches a glimpse of forbidden knowledge in the laptop's reflection on Cromwell's glasses, Mason's revelations are illusory, never definitive, best illustrated through the following dialogue:
“There isn't even an image of water, unless you look closely—mostly the illusion's just composed of words. Whatever's missing just gets filled in, mostly with your own memories, sometimes with someone else's. How to explain? Coleridge said images in dreams represent the sensation we think they cause. We don't feel horror because we see a sphinx, but dream of a sphinx to explain our horror. In the same way, we see a city, though there is no city, just a handful of dreamers, bound together, sharing a dream. But in fact there are no dreamers, just a tissue of memory and vortices moving through it, weaving it together and letting it decay.”
This gorgeous passage enacts Mason's vision of “dreamers, bound together, sharing a dream,” whether his characters are melding memories, communicating via wireless phones, or transmitting data to one another.
Reminiscent of the work of giants like Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson, Void Star is a towering, twisting, and oracular ziggurat. Mason carries on rich science fiction traditions while saturating readers in heady prose that they may not anticipate from this sort of novel. The prose is at once intoxicating, enchanting, and mournful. Although Mason's subject matter is complex, his deeper revelations are vulnerably human. The following passage describes protagonist Irina and the terminally-ill Constanin merging their memories via memory implants:
His words in her mind. Tell me stories. Give me a part of you. Something to take with me. Don't let me be alone.
          She gave him her summer in Singapore, the liberty and solitude, the waves' reverberation in the emptying downtown. She gave him the day she'd opened her Swiss bank account, how adult she'd felt when she signed the papers. She gave him the cold in the cheap hotel on the outskirts of Boston, how she had paid for it because her lover, Philip, her first, had no money at all… By then Constantin's breathing had become chains of gasps, and his other memory accumulated little more than his nausea and pain and the clarity of her sensorium. She cast about for some last, great thing to give him at the end and settled on her night on the deck of a tramp steamer in the equatorial Pacific. She'd kept waking and drifting off again, eager to see the space elevator, and finally there it was, like a column of darkness, at least at the base, a thin vertical absence of stars.
Masterfully, Mason conflates the consciousness of two characters. This intimate exchange and movement between minds is metaphorical. Mason is aware of the novelist's ability to conjure sublimation—the higher meaning produced from the bridging of two perceptions—and here he explores memories in a tender moment of visitation between separate pasts that can never become whole. Death, here, arrives with the termination of coalescing minds, meaning, and movement: “She looked into his other memory, the last eleven years of his life's experience fixed forever in deep strata of data, immobile now, and somehow cold,” Mason writes. “Of course, she thought, I should have known, this is what death is, this stillness in memory.”

In the speculative vision of Zachary Mason's Void Star, there are threats of horrific infiltration, theft, and oblivion. There is also an enduring sense of solipsism and the reciprocity of human endurance. As tumultuous and fantastic a novel as Void Star is, Mason's unwavering finesse lies in his power to calm the sea, to ensnare endless transmissions, and to tenderly engrave fleeting oracles of our hopes and fears.

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