Recent Reading: The Actual Star by Monica Byrne

By a total coincidence, Byrne's second novel resonates with both of this year's previous Recent Reading reviews. Like Matt Bell's Appleseed, it's a climate novel that proceeds in three timelines, past, present, and future, connecting to and echoing one another. And like Benjamin Rosenbaum's The Unravelling, it depicts a far-future, anti-capitalist society where post-human people can sculpt their bodies and choose their social milieu with incredible freedom, but which turns out to be more repressive, and in need of revolution, than it first seems. Obviously,  Byrne strikes her own path, and among her most distinctive choices is the one to construct the novel around the culture and worldview of the ancient Maya, who are depicted here, in all the complexity of their rituals and beliefs, with an acceptance and lack of judgment that can take a while to get used to.

In the past storyline, set in 1012 South America, twins Ajul and Ixul are preparing to accede to the throne of Tzoyna, one of the last surviving Mayan kingdoms at a time when droughts, political unrest, and internecine fighting have led to a decline in the civilization's power and population. Byrne goes into great detail about the ceremonies that accompany the coronation, which include ritual bloodletting, sacred ball games, and human sacrifice. She also delves into both twins' worldviews, which can sometimes make for an uncomfortable ride. Both take it as a given that their royal birth makes them inherently superior to others, and that the people destined to die in their coronation have been granted a great honor, which it would be disgraceful to try to escape. But while Ajul interprets his divine right through the lens of noblesse oblige, believing that by correctly carrying out the rituals of accession, he will ensure the restoration of his land, Ixul is more straightforwardly power-hungry. When the coronation is interrupted by a middle class revolt, these warring perspective come to a head.

In 2012, nineteen-year-old Leah Oliveri travels from Minnesota to Belize. The product of a fling between a missionary and Maya man, Leah has long been obsessed with Mayan culture, practicing ritual cutting and reading up on Mayan history and beliefs. She visits Actun Tunichil Muknal, a cave sacred to the Maya, containing the remains of human sacrifices and other ritual objects, where she has an overpowering spiritual experience. She also becomes involved with two brothers: Javier, a gregarious, satisfied man who dreams of reviving Mayan rituals, such as the ball game pitz, and popularizing them worldwide; and Xander, an intellectual with dreams of leaving Belize for an academic career, who takes a baleful view of the commodification of his ancestral culture as a tourist attraction. Leah becomes consumed with returning to the cave and venturing into its unmapped areas, believing that she will be able to access a higher form of consciousness there, to perceive the truer reality that underpins our own—as the novel's title has it, the actual star.

In 3012, humanity has dwindled to a population of a few million as the last of the planetary ice has melted. The survivors live a nomadic life that is nevertheless strongly ordered and, in its own way, comfortable. Called Laviaja, it's a philosophy that takes Leah, Javier, and Xander as its saints, and is founded on writings that Xander left behind as a result of his encounter with Leah, and on work he did with other scientists who developed "fugeetech"—technology intended to enable survival in the post-climate-catastrophe future. It stresses a total lack of attachment, and its adherents travel constantly, never staying in any one place, or with any one companion, for more than a few days. Familial relationships are deliberately loose—pair-bonding is unheard-of, and children are passed from one parental figure to another. Gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are all left to the individual's choice, and genetic engineering permits people to accentuate either male or female sexual characteristics (or both, or neither). It's a society that draws strongly from Mayan culture, including the use of hallucinogenic drugs to trigger visions that are intended to guide people towards Xibalba, the Mayan afterlife—where, it is believed, Leah disappeared to during her last visit to the cave.

The 3012 segments are by far the novel's most interesting plot strand, to the extent that it can sometimes feel a bit wearying to return to the other two. One can sense the influence of Le Guin's The Dispossessed on Laviaja's mingled freedom and conformity. But, fittingly for a novel written in the midst of the climate crisis, Byrne's version of an anarchist utopia has a sort of urgent desperation to it that Le Guin's lacked. Laviaja was codified in the ashes of a civilization that destroyed itself, and its primary function is to discourage the evils that have been identified as the causes of that destruction—capitalism, nationalism, racism, sexism. The ultimate evil in this world is "hoarding"—of resources, of land, or of people. Those who choose, despite social pressure, to form permanent family units or settle in one place are treated with, at best, polite condescension, and at worst, outright hostility.

As Le Guin did, Byrne kicks off her story of a dystopian utopia, a conformist anarchy, with the figure of an iconoclast. Niloux is a philosopher who has challenged one of the core tenets of Laviaja, the belief in Xibalba and in the ability to disappear into it as Leah supposedly did (but which Niloux insists she didn't). Niloux's deeper point is that Laviaja needs to constantly reinvent itself if it is to stave off the drift towards hoarding behavior, and that mindless adherence to orthodoxy will not provide the spiritual fulfillment required to avoid that eventuality. Her arguments garner support, but also social opprobrium—for a while, Niloux is "blotted", the most severe punishment that can be handed down by Laviaja's ad hoc governing committees, making her invisible to other travelers and denying her social connection. Even after that punishment is lifted, Niloux's theories elicit strong opposition in the form of the arch-traditionalist Tanaaj, a self-important prig who, like religious fanatics throughout history, slowly reasons her way towards violence in the supposed protection of the greater good. The two women eventually converge on the cave—where Leah, Javier and Xander, and Ajul and Ixul, also end up in their own storylines—for a conclusion that blurs time and reality.

In all three storylines, Byrne works to challenge readers' preconceptions about morality, rationality, and psychological health. Ajul and Ixul have been in a sexual relationship since the death of their parents, and one of the first things we learn about Leah is that she's been sexually active since her early teens, cheerfully embracing the "whore" epithet assigned to her by her peers, disdaining emotional attachments, and seeing sex purely as an exercise in pleasure, perhaps even a sacrament. (This attitude ends up confounding Javier and Xander, both of whom become Leah's lovers but are wrongfooted by her sexual mores—Javier wants to marry her, while Xander insists that she is just another tourist looking for an exotic fling.) In this as in many other ways, Leah anticipates (and, of course, lays the groundwork for) Laviaja, which encourages promiscuity as an alternative to sexual possessiveness. But by placing this behavior in a more familiar setting as well as the futuristic and past ones, the novel challenges readers to set aside their preconceptions—which is perhaps the reason why the past and present storylines are given equal weight instead of acting merely as backstory.

Sexual mores are, in fact, a specific instance of the way the novel seeks to challenge our assumptions about the foundational values of a functional society. In all three settings, characters perceive the world not as a strictly rational, comprehensible place, but as one where gods walk the earth, where one's past life is always just out of reach (or accessible through psychedelics), and where the next world may be just around the corner. When Ajul and Ixul's younger sister Ket encounters a panther on the palace grounds, which mauls her face, it's taken by her and everyone else as the manifestation of a god, and her mutilation as an indication of divine favor, granting her extra-sensory perception. The narrative leaves a great deal of space for the possibility that this is true, as it does for Leah's belief that she has touched something divine in the cave and needs to follow it.

This might seem like a weird choice for a science fiction novel, but Byrne makes her project clear in the future storyline. Laviaja rejects pure rationalism (which it dubs "Westernism") in favor of an approach that mingles mysticism and pharmaceutically assisted vision quests. One aspect of the novel's post-human transformation, it's eventually revealed, is an alteration to people's brains that makes them more susceptible to religious visions and transcendent experiences, which are considered a normal part of the human lifecycle, and incorporated into the social fabric. This can feel a little alienating, but I suspect that reaction is the intended one—to challenge us with the notion of a future society that isn't run purely along rational, materialistic lines, and of future people who take for granted the presence of the otherworldly in their lives.

If I have a core complaint about The Actual Star, then, it's that it doesn't spend more time exploring this issue, or the many other questions raised by Laviaja. The novel's ending is quite abrupt, focusing more on the connections between the three timelines (and the revelation that our heroes in each one are reincarnations of one another) than on the question raised by Niloux's crusade—is this way of life sustainable? Personally, I'm extremely skeptical that it is, that people's natural desire to cling to their loved ones wouldn't eventually overpower the historical warnings about where that kind of possessiveness could lead. For example, as someone who grew up in a country that has an entire literary genre on the theme of "here's how communal childrearing fucked me up for life", I find it hard to believe that the tradition of removing children from their biological parents and passing them from one caretaker to another would survive for very long. I also would have liked more attention paid to the issue of how Laviaja discourages abuse and exploitation, which despite what some people would like to believe aren't merely artifacts of capitalism. (And, on a practical note, I'm not sure I believe that the servers and algorithms that keep the entire thing going—by assigning work details and producing fodder for 3D printers—would keep running, unattended, for as long as they apparently have.) I would have liked the novel to address these questions, and do more to explore Laviaja's failure points and the ways in which they are addressed.

Still, this is to blame The Actual Star for being the novel Byrne wanted to write, not the one I wanted to read. As the blending of all three timelines at the story's conclusion indicates, her project is a more holistic one, more concerned with the question of how human beings respond to change than in the specifics of that change—as one of the scientists Xander encounters in 2012 points out, even the most advanced human societies are helpless in the face of a changing climate, and this is borne out not only by our present moment but by the 1012 storyline, in which Ajul and Ixul's belief in their own semi-divine status can't withstand the simple pressures of drought and a hungry populace. What Byrne has created in response to that question is distinctive enough that I have to bow to her wishes. For all my quibbles with it, the result sits comfortably among the major works of climate fiction, and Laviaja is a fascinating extension of past visions of post-human anarchist utopias.


Chris said…
"Laviaja was codified in the ashes of a civilization that destroyed itself, and its primary function is to discourage the evils that have been identified as the causes of that destruction—capitalism, nationalism, racism, sexism."

Says a lot about how bleak the world looks like now that even this still feels unrealistically optimistic to me - the idea that if modern civilization collapses, humanity will actually learn something from it, or at least point the blame in something approaching the right direction. Right now I suspect the only thing climate change disasters will do is intensify all of these things, and when it finally becomes so big that everyone admits it's happening, it'll get blamed on the usual suspects: overpopulation straining the planet's resources to the breaking point, welfare states spoiling the masses and turning them into locust-like consumers, democracy making governments paralyzed and incapable of making hard choices, and of course, diversity and progress and "moral relativism" cutting people off from their traditional values and leaving them aimless, wasteful, and decadent instead of frugal and virtuous.

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