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. Of course, she thought, I should have known, this is what death is, this stillness in memory.
Conveying a sense of a near future world in which the street finding its own uses for things ends up compiling moments where technology not yet here is antiquated or trash. A laptop acts as a delivery system for a “superior” education to Kern, a young man growing up in a Favela. He takes what he needs from the machine; reflecting and embodying the harsh lines of poverty and society in his own body. Kern uses technology to become a weapon. But he doesn’t think like one.
“Like sculpture, the favelas, but she reminds herself that, avant-garde rapture notwithstanding, they’re sinks for all the saddest ugliness in the world, that to set foot in them is to step back decades, or even centuries, they’re the last bastion of the old…”
Irina is a survivor of an experimental tech herself: an implant. Already antiquated due to their unpredictability and low survival rate, few people have them and they drop your life expectancy drastically. It also expands her memory, allowing her to interact with AI, which, in this world, has grown past human understanding; a new form of life. This makes her profession prestigious and lucrative.
But when she gets hired to figure out a problem with an AI that is ostensibly acting strange, it becomes clear that people with implants have a hope of interacting with AI by virtue of their own abstracted experience comprising their own lives.
Another character, Thales, is the son of an assassinated Brazilian prime minister who is the victim of a brutal car accident, an attempt on his life. To save him a clinic installs a similar implant to make up for the damage to his brain. Though he survives, he is a ghost in his own life. An approximated version of himself focused on the paranoia stemming from his trauma and fear, forever tethered to the memory of his attack. His implant allows for it to be a living memory instead of something that might fade over time.
The rich, too, are somewhat bound in this world. Everyone is, because everyone has the new mortgage: the mayo. A clinic that provides maintenance to the human body, allowing for an elongated lifespan…with the caveat that you need the treatments as early as possible in your life. And, of course, the payments are gestured at being vast sums of money. Even if you’re a part of the super-rich you may not get to live forever. Some believed the treatments were unstable and fictitious. Some only amassed a large enough fortune to secure only a slightly longer lifespan; a couple decades.
“Far be it from me to examine the motives of such a consistent patron of the applied arts. After all, the very rich aren’t like you and me.”
The main characters make up a stratification of class themselves. Irina’s lifestyle has enabled her to prolong her life, whereas Kern owns nothing at all. Thales seems to occupy a liminal space; one step in the world and one step out. The connective tissue bridging their lives.
Cyberpunk is usually frenetic but it’s clear early on Void Star prefers to linger. The prose are winding and beautiful and, in my case at least, extremely effective at slowing down the fiction during important moments, allowing the reader to dwell on them. It’s a subtle way of prioritizing and punctuating the more human aspects of the story over the overarching plot, in which puppeteering is done by the rich and powerful; which is the most predominate cyberpunk element in the book. But it’s the emphasis on the humanity of the characters with such detail that I found most progressive.
To offset this emphasis, the chapters are made to be very short, creating a sense of momentum. In not quite 400 pages there are 77 chapters! I feel like this will be either something a reader will enjoy or hate. Not much time is spent on technical details or expanding on information that might normally follow. Instead, much like Gibson, more time is spent on how something feels. Both from a character perspective as well as in the syntax and cadence of the text.
“Below her are the lights of the valley, like burning jewels on a dark tide. The Bay is a negative space around them, its leaden ripples picked out in the moonlight. There is, Irina realizes, a pattern in the flawed latticework of lights, something deeper than the incidental geometry of buildings and streetlight, to which the city has, unwitting, conformed itself, and, with this revelation, what she had taken for single lights expand into constellations, and each of their lights is a constellation in itself, luminescent forms in an endless descent, and the city is like a nebula, radiant with meaning, and this is how she finally knows she’s dreaming.”
While the story is about these three characters with implants converging as an insidious figure appears to be collecting the memories of those with implants; by any means necessary, it appears. Seemingly random events coalesce in a satisfying way. There are twists and turns I didn’t see coming and there is a kind of resolution that is both emblematic of cyberpunk and against it.
For me, part of why the book was so intriguing and fun to read was the effect the prose had on me, personally. Just as Irina remembers a fading memory of a past love, willing her last conversation with him to replay in such a way as for it to be as real as the present, the prose also made my own mind meander because of descriptive and evocative word choices that alternate in the prose. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in your own thoughts. It feels like it’s designed that way. Springboarding sentences for your own subconscious. While it took me out of the fiction, it is also rare that some text can shift me into my own thoughts and I appreciated it a lot in this case.
“He studied his face through her eyes, the image echoing between them, and then she watched as words coalesced—language like foam forming on black seas of thought…”
It’s been some time since I read cyberpunk with a voice like this. It’s also more accessible than most authors who tend to write like this. Instead prioritizing a more cerebral plot rather than dwelling on human moments like this one.
There also isn’t a recycling of cyberpunk tropes to the point where technology makes no sense, such as the case with a lot of first wave cyberpunk books. Instead, there’s recontextualization of some of a few; like a patch or update for the more relevant tropes in the genre. Rather than technophobic musings, Zachary Mason openly wonders about the importance of memory and the potential application of augmenting technology surrounding it. He’s done research on AI and so, this seems to more accurately posit what interactions with some might be like. As well as contribute to a more interesting fiction through relevance.
Whether it’s Irina trying to negotiate a precarious precipice on the fringes of her own or others’ memory, or Kern fleeing for his life with nothing to rely on but the words of a stranger in his ear; it is all rooted in a sense of place. The world feels vibrant and real. Lived in. There are some repercussions from climate change and the scale and disparity of class stratification rooted in the thoughts and feelings of individuals instead of the somewhat typical infodump conversations of the genre.
It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. I wish I could just slip up and down the timeline as I pleased. It's almost what I do anyway.
I wondered throughout if it’s written in the heavy prose style to have the reader wander this new alien cyberspace, approximating their surroundings with translations of data gathered in the lived experiences of their disparate lives. The real bled in with the digital for me. In describing the characters’ perspective in detail, you begin to understand the significance of a viewpoint other than your own.
“…the abstract geometrics spasming across the TV screen are settling into a deep crystalline blue, the same as the color from her implant’s diagnostics, which somehow seems natural, as though her history pervaded everything, and the world were the palace of her memory.”