“Literary” is a term that is thrown about in the writing world, an adjective that simultaneously means “smart” and “serious” and “subtle” and occasionally even “cutting edge” and “satirical.” When applied to genre work, fantasy becomes “fabulism” and science fiction becomes “speculative.” I’m generalizing here, but it is an odd term and one that occasionally reeks of classism. At its best, literary often means that a book has a healthy amount of subtext and that the prose is beautiful. It engages the parts of the brain that want to work hard and the parts that want to appreciate beautiful words. At its worst, literary work can feel cold, distant and even cruel, evasive for the sake of being so. Void Star, the second book by author Zachary Mason (The Last Books of the Odyssey), straddles the good and less good parts of literary writing. However, most of the negative aspects come from the industry’s need to categorize. And the good parts are all due to the imagination and craftsmanship of Mason, who is clearly a talent to watch.

One of the blurbs on Void Star’s book jacket compares it to William Gibson’s cyberpunk masterpiece Neuromancer. It’s easy to see where the comparison comes from but doing so also puts Void Star at an immediate disadvantage. Readers have had over 30 years to embrace Gibson’s classic, and acolytes eager for another worthy Neuromancer successor will find themselves disappointed by Void Star’s significant differences. It’s also odd that, while the marketing uses terms like “propulsive” and “labyrinthine” to describe Void Star, in truth the novel is slow-paced and of an average length, below average when you compare it to many world-building science fiction novels.

It is our need to categorize and compare books that limits Void Star, because when evaluated on its own, the book is excellent. It truly does feel like a piece of literary science fiction, with gorgeous writing and plenty of room for analysis. The depth of Void Star, however, isn’t heavy handed. While comparisons to The Matrix series of films can be made, Void Star goes in less expected directions and balances its allegorical ambitions with strong storytelling.

This strong storytelling is built on excellent characters and fantastic world building. The three main characters are Irina, a dry-witted woman with a digital memory, making her an excellent liaison between humans and artificial intelligence; Kern, a street-tough mercenary; and Thales, a privileged but crumbling heir to a Brazilian political dynasty. Each of these characters serves as our tour guide for a different part of the stunning, imaginative world that Mason has built. Irina’s position allows her to move around in the ultra-wealthy, technologically driven city, Kern introduces readers to the favelas outside of the city and necessity forces Thales to traverse between two, starkly different societies. The backstory of this futuristic society is brilliantly built, with Mason paying particularly attention to South American influences but also touching upon a multitude of world cultures.

While the writing is beautiful, particularly when it comes to technological descriptions that computer-scientist Mason manages to transform into intricate but understandable details, Void Star is still a crowd pleaser of a book. It is smart enough to be called literary, but the dialogue, the slow-burn tension and the occasional pops of action all feel tailored to popular fiction readers as well as the more literary-minded. The noir elements of the story give the tale a Blade Runner vibe, but it is important to allow Void Star to stand on its own, free of comparison. Mason’s unique vision of the future is more than strong enough to stand on its own, and, for that, Void Star should be considered on its own merits.

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