Charles's Reviews > Void Star

Void Star by Zachary Mason
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it was ok

Cyberpunk thriller with extensive world building in which a: Plutarch, rogue AI and cyborg hacker vie against each other to achieve their separate goals.

Wanted to Did-Not-Finish (DNF) this, but like with the fascination of watching a train wreck I held on. The story had good bones as a cyberpunk thriller. It fell apart with the author’s implementation. It was made more complicated than it had to be. The death of it was: the use of a sesquipedalian vocabulary, gross errors in detail while trying to create an immersive atmosphere through a high level-of-detail, a too large cast of POV contributing characters, and overloading an already complicated main plot with sub-plots and location changes.

This story was a cyberpunk thriller with literary pretensions. In a dystopian future with rampant technology, government and environmental collapse, the goals of the world’s richest man and an extremely capable rogue AI unknowingly converge in the person of a independent contractor, cyborged hacker with expertise in communicating with AI’s. An ensemble cast of characters were used. Many cyberpunk and dystopian future tropes were employed. Action takes place at many locations around the changed and changing planet. The story was similar to Neuromancer , which was written before the development of environmental concerns. The author attempts to achieve an immersive atmosphere with an extremely high level of detail and tech infotainment.

My dead-tree copy was a hefty 400-pages. Original US copyright for the story was 2017. Reading pace varied from the turgid to paging though.

The author is a PhD computer scientist and “reimagined classics” novelist.

Prose was frankly appalling. Descriptive prose was long and wordy. Dialog was oddly short in comparison. Both types suffered from poor word usage.

The convention for writing popular fiction, including science fiction is to avoid too many multisyllabic words. Using words a reader is unlikely to know breaks their concentration-- the author loses the reader. For example, this single, long descriptive sentence was typical:

With each passing car there’s a deafening pulse and he’s wondering if he could time them, fling himself through one of the evanescent gaps, and he’s looking for his moment when behind him someone ostentatiously clears his throat.

The author may have a large vocabulary, but it’s likely all his readers do not. In addition, there was unexpected poor word usage with the technical vocabulary. For example, on at least one occasion the author uses bandwidth when throughput was intended.

Oddly, the action scenes were good. They did not suffer from the issues found in the dialog and descriptive prose.

The story contained sex, drugs and violence. The naughty bits were well done, but not particularly graphic. Sex was not all heteronormative, although it was amongst the main characters. I was disappointed at this. Substance abuse including alcohol was endemic in the story. Drugs were both futuristic and mundane. I note that old-fashioned alcohol usage among the characters was at levels typical of noir stories. Violence was graphic and included torture. It was: edged weapons, physical and firearms, including industrial laser usage. There were moderately graphic descriptions of blood, gore and major trauma. Body count was genocidal. Collateral property damage was that of a War Zone.

The story was written with an ensemble cast. There were more POV contributing characters than there needed to be. There were three (3) main POVs: Irina Sundan, Kern (no last name) and Thales (no last name). Switching between the POVs was well handled in short chapters. Sundan and Kern were the main protagonists. Thales was more weakly constructed. Sundan was the cyborg, an AI Whisperer. She’s the Magical Girl Warrior . Through her implant she could magically hack dystopia’s Internet of Things: opening locked doors, disabling enemies, and in general performing deus ex machina duties. Kern (no last name) was the autistic savant ninja, petty thief, and morador da favela (slum dweller). He was the story’s unwitting, and uncomplaining Paladin . Thales was the cyborged, son of a Brazilian politician. (view spoiler) He was an awkwardly created character that felt added-on to the story in a late review. His part only becomes clear at the story’s end. Akima (no last name) was a minor character closely related to Thales, but contributes no POV to the story. She’s a woman who comes to the Big City to reinvent herself and makes Bad Choices. She’s also Kern’s femme fatale (mostly). All the characters above are either being manipulated by or in conflict with the antagonists. (view spoiler) The story’s antagonists were James Croswell and the rogue AI. Through his enormous wealth, in the future plutocracy, Cromwell was the Lawfully Evil King . Cromwell’s competitor was an AI which had escaped into the wild and remains undercover. The AI can access and hijack computer controlled resources as it needed. The AI was at least as powerful as Cromwell. It had competing interests with Croswell. There were numerous supporting characters from the: demimonde, corporate worker-bees, and the moneyed aristocracy. There were also a few AIs counting as characters.

The story heavily leveraged noir-ish cyberpunk tropes. The mutable Crapsack World trope created a dystopian future of an in-progress environmental, economic and representative government collapse and rampant high-technology. Sunden was an independent, cyborged expert with AIs. Cromwell was the planet’s richest men. Cromwell hires Sunden to ‘investigate’ a problem with one of his business critical AI’s. He’s being disingenuous. The engagement leads to the Colliding Conspiracies of the main plot. Cromwell wants to use Sunden to gain leverage on a powerful rogue AI. At the start of the story both Cromwell and Sunden are unaware of Sunden’s relationship with the AI. The author uses the dueling POVs of the Two Lines, No Waiting trope. Irina was on one fork and the Kern character on the other. Kern was a peculiar small time thief. He was hired to steal an unusual communications device. However, he was Robbing The Mob Bank. Actually the covert rogue AI. Both narrative threads lead back to the rogue AI overtly involved with Croswell and later not-so-secretly with Sunden. The author takes the characters on the dystopian World Tour whilst resolving the narrative threads. The story ends, and the author spends several needless chapters describing how the kids are alright, which was not a typical noir-ish ending.

The author started out with a good story well within the cyberpunk sub-genre. World building was a strong point of the story. The author was knowledgeable about future trends in technology, politics and economics. However, he decided to write literary science fiction and didn’t know how to do it.

The story was made overly complicated with a too large an ensemble cast. For example, the two (2) main POVs (Irena and Kern) would have been enough.

The prose was riddled with multisyllabic words that did not improve the narration. I came to see it as pure hubris on the author’s part. This was frustrating, because the author could be good at descriptive prose. Unfortunately, he too often gilded dialog and descriptions beyond common understanding with the polysyllabic words of scientific journals.

Atmosphere is an important aspect of noir-ish novels, cyberpunk or otherwise. The author went to an extreme level of detail to create an immersive atmosphere for the story. Note that he used these descriptions as infotainment too. This was a big writing error in two (2) ways. Firstly, he was too controlling. His overly detailed descriptions robbed the reader of creative ambiguity. That’s where the reader’s imagination is pleasurably engaged in creating possible meanings and scene backgrounds. Note that creative ambiguity can also save an author a lot of words. However, word count did not appear to be a concern of this author. Secondly, The Devil was in the details. Some of the author's descriptions/infotainments were wrong . The author lost a lot of hard written work building an immersive atmosphere by leaving it riddled with errors and inconsistencies.

For example, the little things count:
He pads naked into the bathroom, which is tiled in smooth stone—easing the light on, he sees it’s granite, mottled with the cross-sections of tiny fossil shells.

Kern describes the “granite” tiles of the first luxury hotel room’s bathroom he’s ever seen. They have the imprint of fossil seashells embedded in them. Granite is an igneous rock. Fossils only appear in sedimentary rock.

This also extended to muscling the technical details. Sometimes he was technically very real-- other times not. My suspension-of-believe was flicking on-and-off at too high a rate for comfort.

For example, Sunden’s implant let her perform magic. The implant’s capabilities are described in great technical detail. (Its her magic sword!) Radio frequency transmissions use power (electrical wattage). I wondered, where did the power needed to drive the distant, high-bandwidth, Wi-Fi connections she often made with her implant? (She did this to miraculously and regularly hack the internet-of-things.) There was no description of her plugging in to re-charging her head batteries overnight. I note that Kern’s magic cell phone, despite being able to get a signal anywhere still required battery charging.

Finally, the author took the story on The World Tour. The locales included: San Francisco, Los Angles, Singapore, Delhi, Tokyo, and London to name a few. Some of them were good. For example, I liked the Beanstalk island . However, the story could easily have been written between San Francisco and Los Angles with the Beanstalk island and maybe Singapore for its part in Sunden’s backstory. That's four (4) locales versus more than ten (10). Again, I came to see the use of so many foreign locations as the author’s hubris.

This was a terrible book. I wondered how this book garnered such good reviews. It could have been a good, work of popular cyberpunk science fiction. The author had a firm grasp on the futurism needed to write one. The basic story idea was good. I could see the cyberpunk influence of both William Gibson and Richard K. Morgan in it. However, he tried to write literary science fiction. That decision added an unneeded 100-pages to the book. Along the way, he forgot about his audience. They were more likely, to be the Hoi polloi and not PhDs like him. The story he wrote read like a technical journal. He sabotaged his efforts at an immersive atmosphere by being both overly detailed, and then not paying strict attention to the correctness of the details. He created a large ensemble cast of characters, not all of them good. He embroidered too many sub-plots into an already complicated main plot. He wasted pages on foreign locations and world travel. And finally, he ensured there was a happy ending with needless chapters after the story had ended.

This book had a few good ideas, and good world building. It failed miserably in its implementation. I only completed it, because it was a shining example of how not to write science fiction.

Readers looking for a better story might want to check out the classic work of cyberpunk Neuromancer discussed above.
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Reading Progress

February 16, 2018 – Shelved
February 16, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
July 2, 2019 – Started Reading
July 2, 2019 –
page 122
31.69% "Rather complicated plot with an ensemble cast of characters, pretentious writing, and heavy dependency on non-mystical technomancy."
July 3, 2019 –
page 165
42.86% "Irina the freelance AI-whisperer is the best character. However, her implant lets her perform magic. I wondered, where does the electricity (Wattage) needed to power the distant Wi-Fi connections she makes with her implant to miraculously hack the internet-of-things? She's not described re-charging her head batteries at any time. The FM Principal is the only explanation."
July 6, 2019 –
page 200
51.95% "I suspect the author wrote this novel iteratively. With each successive draft he added more detail with each iteration. This gilding the lily with lush visuals and meticulous detail to give the story an immersive quality isn't working for me. Some of the details are in correct. I don't like large ensemble character narration. I also typically think less is more."
July 10, 2019 –
page 200
51.95% "Now that I see the author's formula, visions of DNF-ing this are dancing in my head."
July 14, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Jennifer (new) - added it

Jennifer How do you "ostentatiously" clear your throat. Isn't that an unnecessary adverb? I believe that if you're clearing your throat and you don't have a cough coming on then you're doing it to attract attention. So saying it's ostentatious is a bit redundant

message 2: by Charles (last edited Dec 22, 2020 05:32AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Charles Jennifer wrote: "How do you "ostentatiously" clear your throat. Isn't that an unnecessary adverb? I believe that if you're clearing your throat and you don't have a cough coming on then you're doing it to attract a..."

The prose was worse than A Memory Called Empire, because the author actually knew something of science and engineering. All I could figure was, he was blackmailing his publisher to get it printed without being passed through a competent editor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux also doesn't publish sf. They publish literary fiction, by authors like Phillip Roth.

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