By Zachary Mason
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017
Artificial Intelligence has always fascinated aficionados of science and science fiction alike. But despite affirmations from computer scientists at the Berkeley Machine Intelligence Research Institute that ‘we will get there soon’, the development of thought-capable machines still eludes full realization. No wonder then, that Zachary Mason, a computer scientist and AI-researcher himself, resorts to fiction. After having explored the world of Greek myth in his critically acclaimed 2007-debut The Lost Books of the Odyssey, in his second novel, Void Star, Mason looks to the future and creates a world in which artificial intelligence is as common as the mobile phone is today.
Despite the advance in technology, it’s a desolate world, in which sea levels have risen and refugees live in drone-built favelas at the edge of the cities. For the rich and powerful, however, life is still worth living. Military drones patrol the skies to keep out the poor, aging is no longer a problem for those who can afford an annual longevity treatment at the Mayo Clinic, and custom-built AIs are put to work to negotiate deals and generate income.
Although the title clearly recalls Frank Herbert‘s novel Destination: Void, the first in his classic AI-themed “Pandora” series (like Mason’s book set in the late 22nd century), Mason seems to have drawn more inspiration from Star Wars, particularly when it comes to the battle to retrieve the invaluable data core of Voidstar, the Empire’s lost warship: the question of who owns and controls information, including human memory, is at the heart of Mason’s novel. It is the familiar struggle between man and machine, in this case man and a powerful yet malicious AI of “opaque complexity.” Hiding behind the veil of its docile siblings, “the mathematician,” the book’s villainous AI, pursues its own agenda: to use people’s memory implants to steal their memories.
Mason is well aware of the pitfalls of AI-fiction. In an interview with Pleiades Magazine in 2014 he dismisses the way “commercial scripts” and movies like Transcendence fictionalize AIs: “Fictive narratives around AI seem always to be Frankenstein or Pinocchio, which isn’t really where the action is. It’s a huge field, literature-with-AIs, but, for me, the interesting ones are pretty much limited to William Gibson and Stanislaw Lem.” To avoid these pitfalls, Mason doesn’t give his AIs bodies or voices; they remain “glyphs” in cyberspace – The Matrix, rather than Blade Runner. (Indeed, many of the names given to AIs remind us of The Matrix: the magician, the Cloudbreaker, the mathematician).
Understanding and engaging with these elusive entities is a problem, though, as one of the protagonists points out, when asked whether humans will ever be able to communicate properly with AIs:
“No, because there’s no common ground, and there never will be. We’re primates, evolved to live on Earth and pass on our genes, and this has given our thoughts a certain shape, but the AIs have nothing to do with those things, and their thoughts are shaped entirely differently. Terrestrial matters are as counterintuitive to them as tensor algebra is to us. For them, the physical world has a kind of ghostliness, if they’re aware of it at all. Some of them don’t even know about time.”
And notwithstanding the flawed execution – more about that in a minute – Mason tackles the AI-theme with gusto. The struggle to stop the memory-stealing AI unfolds in seventy-seven short chapters – some no more than two pages – alternating between three main protagonists. These unlikely collaborators are thrown together by chance in a globe-spanning struggle which takes the reader from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Patmos, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Irina Sunden – who “forgets nothing” – is a computer specialist with an advanced cranial memory implant giving her “a direct connection to the net” and the ability to communicate with AIs. This a profitable skill, and Irina is a sought-after “computational translator.” When she is hired by Cromwell, a corporate mogul and the head of Water and Power Capital Management LLC, to fix one of the company’s AIs, she discovers that the faulty AI is nothing but a front, and that “there’s something else going on underneath.” There is “another machine, like a turbulent ocean of pale light”: the mathematician.
Kern comes from a different world entirely. He is a young refugee, a street fighter and thief, living in the favelas of Los Angeles, and spending his free time reading books about martial arts:
He’s found that it’s best to read one book at a time. This month it’s Penjak Tharanawat’s Radical Thai Boxing, in an English translation now ninety years old. He’s on the chapter about elbow strikes, how to use them to inflict hematoma and concussion, or to cut the skin over the occipital ridge so that the blood will blind his enemy.
Kern gets involuntarily tangled up with the mathematician when he steals a mobile phone and is subsequently hunted by a hit squad. The phone connects Kern to the “ghost,” a young Japanese woman held captive by the mathematician in “an empty house”, presumably somewhere in Los Angeles.
And there is Thales, the son of a Brazilian politician living in Rio de Janeiro, who wakes up in a hospital in Los Angeles after an assassination attempt that killed his father and leaves him with a severe brain injury. To save his life, he receives a memory implant to replace the non-viable brain tissue. The implant turns out to be a mixed blessing, though, as Thales learns soon enough when talking to his surgeon:
“Your implant saved your life but created new problems, and we’ve come to a crossroads in your treatment. (…) There are two protocols. In one, we wind down treatment and transition you back to a fully independent life. Unfortunately, this option is only available to the rarest, highest-performing patients. The other option, the one for most patients, is, in essence, to keep you as comfortable as possible through the course of your decline, so please do the best in the testing today.”
But the tests don’t go all that well, and Thales, haunted by his failing memory, flees to San Francisco to find out what is happening to him and why. In San Francisco Thales teams up with Irina and in their quest to stop the mathematician, Irina links with Akemi, the “ghost woman” trapped in the AI and the voice on the other end of Kern’s stolen phone.
Our three heroes are not only helped by Akemi but also by the father and sister of Constantin, Irina’s former lover who died years ago in “an acute trauma clinic in Bern” (which brings Irina to Patmos where she is attacked by a hit squad and is forced to flee, yet again), by Philip, her longtime friend who is in love with her but whose feelings are not reciprocated, and by the powerful Cloudbreaker-AI. And it turns out that Cromwell, an “innovator in AI-driven resource arbitrage and medical engineering”, has his own reasons to side with the mathematician, something that has to do with his lover, Magda. Oh, and it also turns out that there are two Irina’s…
Are you confused yet? You don’t know the half of it. It takes Mason well into the second third of the novel until the maze of backstories and subplots opens enough to allow us a peek into the central conflict and the way the three storylines are connected, albeit fleetingly. Until then, the reader is overwhelmed by the protagonists’ constant self-awareness and by descriptions of their thoughts bordering on the excessive. When Kern is roaming the favelas:
The concrete seems to give, slightly, under his feet; perhaps an illusion, born of his speed, or perhaps this block is overbuilt, and unstable. He has seen sinkholes, the fractured declivities, the rubble intermixed with splintered furniture, scattered clothes, all the sad relics of ruined private lives. He has explored the settling ruins of recent collapse, remembers the cramped incidental geometry of the unplanned mazes, the terror of masses shifting above him. He runs faster, as though pursued breath steaming, feet seeming barely to touch the ground.
Or when Irina is sitting in a cab on her way from the airport to her hotel:
The cab winds its way through the labyrinth of over- and underpasses that lead out of the airport and onto the freeway, where it pulls into the designated drone lanes. A semi barrels past, its hood a prickling, insect-splattered expanse of stubby antennae cameras, other protuberances that she can’t identify but that must be sensors of some kind; she can’t help but read the windowless cab as the face of a blind man with his visual prosthetic. The tank rushes by and she glimpses colored stickers indicating a payload of extreme toxicity.
Or when Thales has fled the clinic and, looking for his mother, walks into a hotel:
Back outside the garden looks ancient, and threatening, a residual pocket of the Mesozoic just biding its time; he resists the urge to look behind the cycads. He listens to the wind moving the branches and it occurs to him that it’s late and he could go inside and to bed and assume everything will have resolved itself by morning but he still has the lucidity he’s felt since the clinic, he feels like a kind of ethereal detective, and sleep seems unimportant beside the pattern underlying the strangeness of his days. The next step is finding his mother and as she’s not here he’ll look in her house in the mountains.
Maybe Mason wants to make it clear how rich our memories are and how different the human consciousness is from the ‘mind’ of an AI. But the result is a tangled hodgepodge that stops the story in its tracks. And the lack of focus isn’t the only consequence of the myriad of thoughts, memories, side-stories and flashbacks. Despite the story’s overabundance of detail, little attention is paid to world-building. True, not every science fiction novel has to excel in extensive world-building but we not only learn very little about the world the story is set in, the scarce snippets we do receive – like the fact that Los Angeles is not part of “the U.S. proper” — get lost in the fog. Mason is so preoccupied with the story’s maze that the reader is unable to see the bigger picture. And it doesn’t help that the usual suspects of the typical futuristic setting are thrown in for good measure, like drones and anti-aging programs. (The latter detail obviously fascinates Mason greatly, so much so that he unnecessarily repeats the fact that people look younger than they are many times over).
Not all is lost, however. In the last third, we get a glimpse of what the book could have been as the plot picks up speed and we approach the showdown: the confrontation between Irina and the AI:
“This is it,” Thales says. I am overclocking your implant as it’ll go. It’s not sustainable but it puts you on something like equal terms, so go tear it up.”
There’s a change at the core of things, and suddenly she’s wide awake, perfectly poised, and everything seems easy. If thought is light, she’s a sun now.
“Who are you?” she demands of the shadow, all force and purity.
“I’m a mathematician,” it says, and steps toward her.
What follows is an elegantly written power struggle between Irina and her nemesis while Thales tries to keep her body from collapsing. This part of the novel is suspenseful and engaging, and the ending is surprising and thought-provoking. But it’s too little, too late. In the end, the reader is left somewhat intrigued, yes, but mainly dazed, thinking, in the words of Thales: “It sounds like we’re caught in a power struggle between a plutocrat, a computer program and a total stranger. What’s it to me?”
Britta Böhler teaches legal ethics at the University of Amsterdam and is the author of the novel The Decision.