Let’s start with the basics. Zachary Mason’s Void Star is a techno-thriller set in the near-future, in which human beings with brain-enhancing neural implants are the only ones capable of communicating with otherwise impenetrably complex AIs. One such enhanced individual — jaded globe-trotter Irina Sunden — is hired by a shady billionaire to investigate the odd behaviour of one of his computers. Of course, she uncovers a plot that is very complex and sinister, and which also involves two other major characters — Thales, the enhanced but physically disabled son of a Brazilian politician, and Kern, a street-fighter for hire who accidentally ends up in possession of a very special mobile phone.
So far, this isn’t particularly unusual material, but it is elevated much beyond the staples of its genre by the quality of Mason’s prose. The writing style here is complex and distinctive, the imagery vivid, the turn of phrase splendid. Mason’s book stands out as unique and accomplished, even compared to the efforts in the genre by luminaries such as Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy.
For this reason, it’s also difficult and exhausting. Each chapter in Void Star is built on sentences that are long-winded and dense. Here’s a typical example: ‘The girl sends him down a corridor alone and he starts to feel steady, almost poised, probably capable of facing the morning, and this isn’t the least because the tessellations of the floor’s tiles are predictable without being intricate or even interesting and then, deep within the clinic, he opens a door onto an office as enshadowed as a tomb where the only color is the muted red of a Persian rug on the weathered hardwood floor.’ This is not hard to follow in isolation, but when the novel throws one long sentence like this at you after another, you may start feeling tired after as little as ten pages of reading.
It’s an effort worth undertaking, though, because the reward is a wonderfully immersive plunge into a world that is persuasively novel in some places, and appealingly familiar in others. Combined with a mystery plot that seems sensitive to the technological questions we face today, and which is remarkably compelling from the outset, it’s clear that the interest of Void Star won’t be restricted to the science-fiction fan, but should be extended to anyone looking for a good and enriching read.
Although praiseworthy on so many levels, the novel is not exempt from flaws, and that involves the writing style too. Consistently excellent at describing setting and action, Mason is nonetheless oddly weak when doing dialogue, as he seems unable to snap out of his verbosity. All of the characters speak exactly the way that the narrator does, with long, sophisticated sentences that sound out of place particularly in the characters of simpler upbringing. Thus, one young girl who just helped the street fighter out and wants something in return won’t simply say ‘How about you pay me back?’ or ‘A favour for a favour’. Instead, she will introduce her request like this: ‘Would you say you’re a man of grateful spirit?’ …Who in the world actually speaks like that?
More generally, what the novel boasts in plot, style, and conceptual execution it, unfortunately, lacks in characterisation. Irina is the only one of the three POV characters with a proper arc, and the only one I warmed to. The other two have profiles that are interesting a priori — particularly the street fighter — but their internal lives seem flat (with the exception of a very well-executed passage set in South-East Asian clandestine fighting). The supporting cast is not particularly strong either. There’s a mercenary-for-hire whose one-dimensional dedication to his mission makes him duller than my phone’s answering-machine, an evergreen billionaire who is probably meant to be mysterious but who only comes across as wooden, and a shallow actress whose motives and behaviour I never completely understood.
All this noted, Void Star remains a pleasure to read, if only for the sheer electric beauty of the language. The author being a computer scientist, he’s very aware of the problems posed by our upcoming technology, and he articulates them very persuasively.
Foremost among these is the issue of artificial intelligence, which plays a prominent role in this story and which is increasingly turning into one of the defining tropes of this decade’s sci-fi. Mason’s book could perhaps be read as an effort to dramatise some of the emerging concerns about the role of AI in our lives, and on grander terms, about the future of human intelligence when it will inevitably be surpassed by its artificial counterpart.
It is to Mason’s (further) credit that he doesn’t overdo the conclusion. While the character’s trajectories are closed, most of the ethical and conceptual problems they struggle with remain open. The story ends with a sense of uncertainty about our future, which reflects very accurately the concerns of our age, and that may be the highest of its achievements.