December 25, 2021

Review: The Actual Star

The Actual Star The Actual Star by Monica Byrne
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is incredibly ambitious and entertaining right up till the end, when it trips and falls flat on its face. There are three separate timelines, a thousand years apart (A.D. 1012, 2012, and 3012, based on the Mayan calendar) and the way it was hyped throughout the book that S*O*M*E*T*H*I*N*G B*I*G was going to happen at the end when those timelines collided? I expected one or more characters to travel from one timeline to another, maybe Saint Leah from the 2012 timeline going forward to rejuvenate the future that in many ways was based on her existence.

Instead, we got....God only knows what. Something I didn't understand and didn't make a lick of sense. If this ambiguous mystical mumbo-jumbo ending, where Leah rides the black jaguar of the gods to the afterlife/underworld/true world of Xibalba had been something the book had more obviously pointed towards, possibly it could have worked. As it was, I reached the final page and thought, "What the hell? Really? Are you fucking kidding me?" (And the way it's revealed that Leah came to Belize because she had a brain tumor and was dying anyway, and the penultimate scene is of her trying to find higher ground in a flooding cave, this entire sequence could be chalked up to the final firing of her neurons in her dying, drowning brain. Which serves to render the preceding 575 pages completely useless.) This ending also leaves the two other timelines dangling in the air, with maybe Niloux from 3012 falling through the cracks clear back to 1012 and meeting her Mayan ancestress and....then what? We never know. I hate endings like this.

Not that there isn't a lot to like along the way. The 1012 timeline is obviously exhaustively researched and has a real lived-in feel: this is the way those people lived, and loved, and died. The 3012 timeline, with its post-climate-change and refugee-derived radical restructuring of human society, is sure to spawn a lot of discussion, particularly when it becomes clear (and thank goodness for the glossary in the back, with it detailed explanation of terms; most readers, including me, would be lost without it) that the new society imagined by the author is nomadic and anarchist. Capitalism, any tech built for profit, and the concept of individual property owning is scorned and forbidden. The human species itself has been changed, as everyone refers to themselves as "she" and all babies are born with both biological sexes (a penis/testicles/uterus/ovaries), which rather nicely serves to destroy the patriarchy as well. (There's also been a massive population crash since our time, as there are only eight million inhabitants of Earth a thousand years from now--and almost all of those seem to be brown and black, as "whiteness" is spoken of as another aspect of the old world that has been eliminated.) The only thing that bugged me about this is the level of technology. There are things mentioned as existing in 3012--implanted assistant AI's, hoverdishes, hoverchairs, various solar-powered things including medical items and "solar paint"--which would require manufacturing and a manufacturing base. That does not mesh with the idea of the future society structuring itself as bands of traveling, intermingling, foraging anarchists, because you gotta stay put for a while to manufacture something. Every time I read that, it threw me out of the story.

So, like I said, this book is ambitious--and at the end, unfortunately, it doesn't work. I don't mind the author reaching as high as she did. But you need the payoff for all the threads you throw down, and in this book the payoff just isn't there. I can admire the effort, and all the imagination put into it, but I would rather have had a proper ending.

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