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.