In the relatively near future, artificial intelligences have completely transcended human understanding, so much so that they can barely comprehend our existence. That’s the background of Zachary Mason’s new literary cyberpunk thriller Void Star, which examines the line between a hyper-connected society and the vast intelligences that lurk just out of sight.
Mason sketches out a fantastic, yet plausible future world. AIs are commonplace, the super-wealthy have the ability to prolong their lifespan well into their hundreds, and weaponized drones patrol the skies. To explore this world, Mason weaves the lives three characters together. Irina Sunden is a freelance contractor with a brain implant that gives her perfect recall and the ability to interface with AIs. Her abilities attract the attention of a super-wealthy businessman named James Cromwell, who pursues her after she discovers a secret that he’s been pursuing.
Then there’s Kern, a street fighter who is tasked with stealing an unusual cellphone and begins receiving instructions from a mysterious woman named Akima on the other end of the line. She provides him with a quest that will help give his empty life some meaning. Finally, there’s Thales, a son of a Brazilian politician who was given an implant to help keep him alive after surviving an attack that killed his father. There are complications, though: he has gaps in his memory after the attack, and he keeps encountering Akima, who keeps asking him how much he remembers. But running in the background of all their lives is a super-powerful AI that has its own particular agenda, orchestrating their movements and the world around them.
Irina, Kern, and Thales are driven by their own respective paths that take them around the world. Irina wants to exact revenge, Kern needs a quest, and Thales just wants answers. As the novel progresses, they each intersect with one another, coming together into an impressive finale. Mason conveys their stories and the world they inhabit with his elegant and descriptive prose, and short, rapid-fire chapters. His writing is at times verbose, and might put off impatient readers, but it’s wonderfully engaging, and brings his vivid world to life with sentences like:
“Vast and sheer, the glass facades of downtown’s canyons, reflecting the blue of the evening, enclosing him like a trap.”
Mason uses the novel to explore the nature of AI and the flow of information in an interconnected world. Here, thousands of generations of artificial intelligence have crafted their successors, leaving humanity unable to really understand how they function. Comparisons to the world of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and The Matrix are appropriate, but Mason’s book is a bit more nuanced. Its characters aren’t driven toward a typical science fictional goal, such as uniting fractured parts of a super-powerful AI, or taking down a billionaire with aspirations of living forever. Mason feels more interested in the journey, examining how people interact with the technology around their lives and how it actually plays a role in the larger world.
And what a world it is. Mason loads up with plenty of engrossing details that flesh out his future, from the mundanity of roadside construction (“She sees hard-haste workmen supervising a segment drone the size of a van, dodecapodal and safety yellow, its humble forward appendages pulling fiber-optic cables up through the incisions in the asphalt of the street, all under the eye of a trio of cops.”) to the exciting, as Irina hiring a security contractor to escort her. (“If I fire a shot, or shots are fired around me, then reinforcements come at a run — armed drones arrive in under one minute, and a squad in five, and if at that point there’s still a problem, then, well, the escalation is ridiculous, but Parthenon isn’t in the business of losing fights.”)
Through Void Star, Mason examines our largely superficial relationship with the ever-growing ecosystem of technology that surrounds us. It’s something that just exists, its own force of nature in the world. How much does the average user understand what’s going on in their phones? Even characters equipped with brain implants like Thales and Irina hardly comprehend the digital world around them.
Void Star plays a delicate balancing act between cyberpunk thriller and literary fiction, spinning out a story that includes both introspection about our relationship with the digital world and fight scenes with armored soldiers. Mason is interested in how his characters understand and interpret the virtual world around us, and the growing gap as it advances far beyond our comprehension, even as we depend on it more than ever.
Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge