Computer scientist and artificial intelligence expert Zachary Mason isn’t eager to reveal too much about his new second novel, Void Star.
Asked what he would want to tell a reader coming to the mind-bending near-future saga cold, the prize-winning Berkeley author says, “I would want to tell them nothing. They can find their own way.”
Seated on the patio of Mission Heirloom in the Gourmet Ghetto, Mason, 42, still jetlagged from his return from a writers’ retreat in Tuscany, relents a bit when pressed for elaboration.
“I hate describing it,” he says. “But when forced, I say it’s a combination between Mrs. Dalloway and Neuromancer.”
That’s an elevator pitch that actually says something meaningful.
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on April 11, Void Star follows three disparate characters as they navigate a future world altered by climate change, social inequality, longevity extension, digital brain implants and the machinations of incredibly powerful artificial intelligences.
Irina Sundren, bearing an implant that bestows perfect recall, specializes in communing with AIs on behalf of their super-rich human creators. Brazilian-born Thales, a survivor of the assassination attempt that took his politician father’s life, also has an implant, one that imperfectly tries to reassemble his shattered memory. Thief and killer-for-hire Kern lives in the favela surrounding San Francisco until he steals the wrong phone from the wrong victim. Eventually, the three narrative strands converge into a meditation on mortality, reality and human and inhuman consciousness.
Mason will be speaking in Berkeley on Sunday, June 4 at 10 a.m. at the Bay Area Book Festival on a panel,”When Reality Meets Science Fiction,” with Cory Doctorow and Meg Elison.
On its shiny, high-tech surface, Void Star doesn’t seem to have much in common with the early 20th-century modernism of Virginia Woolf. As Mason admits, “Not much happens in Mrs. Dalloway. It’s just characters floating around London.”
While there is plenty of globe-trotting action in Void Star, that aspect of the narrative isn’t necessarily its primary objective. As Mason says about Mrs. Dalloway, “It’s about the consciousness of (three) characters and the texture of their experience. And that’s a lot of what I was trying to do with Void Star.”
The book’s connection to William Gibson and his first novel, Neuromancer, will likely be obvious to anyone who grew up reading what was once called “cyberpunk,” stories set where the barriers between the human and the digital worlds are more permeable.
Mason holds Gibson in high esteem. “Not (simply) a wonderful genre writer, but a wonderful writer. I think he is not even really a science fiction writer. He’s more of a literary writer who happens to work in genre.”
As for other influences on Void Star, Mason mentions Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Joan Didion and Patrick O’Brian.
“They all bled into it, to a degree,” he says.
Mason says he wrote the chapters in Void Star completely out of sequence, wanting to maintain the energy that sometimes gets lost after the beginning of a plot-driven novel. It also took him three or four years to write one chapter, in which Irina communes with an inscrutable AI.
Readers of Void Star” expecting easy answers to questions raised by the book may be disappointed.
Mason says, “There’s something specific happening, in the book, but none of the viewpoint characters ever really see all of it, and some of what happens is only barely inferable from the text.
“Some readers seem not to like this, but I think its more interesting that way. If everything is explained neatly, it feels like a contrived riddle or the conclusion of an episode of ‘Scooby Doo.'”
Mason grew up in the Bay Area, received his BS at Harvey Mudd College and went on to earn his doctorate in computer science at Brandeis. He spent a number of years in the South Bay – “shatteringly expensive, ugly, congested, dull” – before moving to Berkeley more than three years ago. Now he lives with his cat, Keta, in a house in the Berkeley hills, where a creek bed runs behind the home, wild turkeys roost in a nearby cedar tree and a mountain lion has been encountered a few blocks away.
“I moved here in search of a balance between living in the city and living in the wilderness,” he says. “I spent 18 months looking for a house in San Francisco but even when I got a bid accepted I ended up withdrawing because it felt claustrophobic. As a friend of mine says, in San Francisco, it’s never really dark, it’s never really quiet and you’re never really alone.”
Void Star is Mason’s second novel. The first, The Lost Books of The Odyssey, a post-modern reinterpretation and remixing of the Homeric classic, was written in isolation, with Mason telling no one what he was working on. When the manuscript was finished, he tried to get an agent.
“Failed utterly,” he says. “No one would even send me a rejection notice.”
But then Mason submitted The Lost Books to a contest sponsored by independent press Stacherone Books in Buffalo, NY. After he won first prize and had the first edition of the book published by Stacherone, he entered it in the New York Public Library’s Young Lions competition, for writers under 35. When the book became a finalist, Mason finally received the attention he had been seeking from agents, editors and fellow writers.
In 2010, FSG published a revised version, which became a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a New York Times Bestseller. Michiko Kakutani, the Times’ lead reviewer, called it a “dazzling debut.”
Next up for Mason is the publication of Metamorphica, another book in the vein of The Lost Books of the Odyssey,” based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A sequel to Void Star” is also in the works.
William Gibson has famously admitted that he knew next to nothing about networked computers when he wrote “Neuromancer.” Mason, however, has decades of firsthand experience with artificial intelligence and computational linguistics. Formerly employed by Amazon, he is now Vice President of Research and Development for education software company Intellus Learning.
Asked what the public’s biggest misconception of what AI is, Mason says, “They think that it exists at all, which it doesn’t. There are lots of cool applications that do things that are usually, in media and by their makers, described as ‘artificial intelligence.’ But they have nothing to do with how the mind works.”Mason is skeptical about how soon AI will have an immediate impact on consumers’ lives.
Mason is skeptical about how soon AI will have an immediate impact on consumers’ lives.”Automated cars will probably become ubiquitous. Recommendation systems will get ever better and extract ever more value from access to your attention. But I don’t see any radical, qualitative advances coming.”
“Automated cars will probably become ubiquitous. Recommendation systems will get ever better and extract ever more value from access to your attention. But I don’t see any radical, qualitative advances coming.”
What about ventures such as Neuralink, a company headed by Elon Musk, that recently announced its quest to develop brain/computer interface technology?
Reportedly, the ultimate goal would be a whole-brain interface, analogous to “neural lace,” a science fictional invention that allows a wireless brain-to-computer connection.
“It sounds awesome if he can get it to work,” Mason says. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be one of the early adopters.”
Any predictions of how interface technology might operate first require an understanding of how the brain works, Mason points out.
“People really don’t (know). It’s the most complex artifact known,” Mason says. “Hype notwithstanding, what neuroscientific research looks at these days is macroscopic functionality of gross brain regions and trying to understand the details of particular neurons. But as far as the overall information processing details, nobody has any real idea, and it seems very far away.”
As for Musk’s reported fear that AIs might take over the world, Mason says, “It’s utter nonsense. I think he’s seen too many science fiction movies.”