The Actual Star – by Monica Byrne

I stumbled upon this title while looking for SFF novels featuring human societies with any kind of unique take on gender; which is, in fact, one of the many themes of this wildly ambitious book.

Title: The Actual Star

Author: Monica Byrne

Publication Date: 14 September 2021

Genre: Science Fantasy – Historical Fiction

Pages: 624

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Representation: Latino cast – Biracial main character – Queernorm society

Content Warning: Self harm – Gore – Sexual content – Climate change – Incest – Death – Child death – Violence – Cancer/Terminal illness

Synopsis

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas meets Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series, as acclaimed author Monica Byrne (The Girl in the Road) spins a brilliant multigenerational saga spanning two thousand years, from the collapse of the ancient Maya to a far-future utopia on the brink of civil war.

The Actual Star takes readers on a journey over two millennia and six continents —telling three powerful tales a thousand years apart, all of them converging in the same cave in the Belizean jungle.

Braided together are the stories of a pair of teenage twins who ascend the throne of a Maya kingdom; a young American woman on a trip of self-discovery in Belize; and two dangerous charismatics vying for the leadership of a new religion and racing toward a confrontation that will determine the fate of the few humans left on Earth after massive climate change.

In each era, a reincarnated trinity of souls navigates the entanglements of tradition and progress, sister and stranger, and love and hate—until all of their age-old questions about the nature of existence converge deep underground, where only in complete darkness can they truly see.

The Actual Star is a feast of ideas about where humanity came from, where we are now, and where we’re going—and how, in every age, the same forces that drive us apart also bind us together.

Analysis

Form & Style: The Actual Star is written in third person and from multiple points of view, interweaving different timelines as well as a variety of experiences in each of them. Byrne’s writing is rich and sophisticated, sometimes favouring uniqueness and ambience over the more mundane demands of clarity; most notably, the novel features fairly extensive dialogues in both Spanish and Belizean Kriol, as well as a wide array of made-up terms and concepts in its 3012 storyline – and while the book comes with a glossary for its futuristic vocabulary, both Kriol and Spanish are left untranslated, so that the reader has to rely on their own knowledge and/or intuition – which you may find intriguing, frustrating, immersive, pretentious, or all of these at once.

Setting: Since the events take place thousand years apart, the novel features three different settings, all interconnected, but each fully fleshed out in its own right.

The 1012 storyline is set in a declining Mayan kingdom, with a strong focus on its beliefs, traditions, and courtly life; here Byrne shows she’s done her research, not because her writing comes across as overly didactic (it does not), but because her believable portrayal of such a distant civilisation clearly implies a deeper scholarly work as a foundation of her seamless storytelling.

The 2012 events take place between Minnesota and Belize; the setting of this storyline is obviously more familiar, and as such does not require any proper worldbuilding, however it also features the most extensive focus on the unique location that ties all plotlines together – that is to say Actun Tunichil Muknal (AKA the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre), a real-world cave and Mayan archeological site. Here the author merges mystical echoes and the more mundane aspects of touristic exploitation (the accident described at the very beginning, where an ancient skull gets damaged by a clueless visitor, is based on real events), adding layers of ambiguity on what’s actually going on.

It’s the 3012 storyline, however, that features the most fascinating setting. Byrne shows us a world deeply changed by global warming, but not entirely destroyed. What’s left of humanity has built a peaceful, mostly nomadic civilisation that relies on advanced portable tech as well as on a religion, Laviaja, inspired by the main character of the previous timeline: a creed that prevents violence and the hoarding of resources, but also staves off all kinds of personal attachment. In such a world, individuals are free to choose their gender, orientation, and cultural heritage, and human gatherings are meant to continuously disperse and reassemble.

Now, for all we get to learn many details, both ideal and material, of this future civilisation, the how’s and why’s of its development are left more than a bit vague. It’s clear enough, however, that such a vision wasn’t born from cold speculation, but out of a heartfelt urgency: that is to say, the need to imagine a world where humanity hasn’t been annihilated by our current threats, and is even thriving in its own way. We may or may not find the concepts of Laviaja especially appealing, but it surely beats most post-apocalyptic scenarios we could otherwise imagine. So I don’t really care if the entire concept of “fugitech” essentially amounts to “invert the polarity, but as a nomadic pacifist” – what matters is that the novel strives to imagine a future that is somehow hopeful, albeit not perfect, and that in doing so portrays a number of intriguing, thought-provoking concepts.

Characters: As mentioned above, we get to see the world through the eyes of a few different characters, whose narration is deeply influences by their respective views, and who are also meant to be a reincarnation of each other. Byrne is adept at portraying not just different personalities or different beliefs, but how the two intermingle to shape each character’s psyche and actions.

For instance, in the 1012 storyline, the three brothers Ket, Ajul and Ixul all share an unquestioned faith in the Mayan religion, and as such can’t see anything problematic in human sacrifices, and accept the influence of the Gods on their daily lives as a matter of fact: for instance, when Ket is maimed by a jaguar, nobody pities her or blames her for her recklessness, instead accepting her mutilation as the sign of a supernatural influence. Ket, however, is unique in her spontaneous and visionary faith, while her older twins struggle in different ways to reconcile their ambitions and their duties.

In 2012, Leah is an American girl of Belizean descent, who takes a trip to Belmopan to reconnect with her own roots; her own personal narration is charged with enthusiasm and sensuality, underlying the sincerity of her mystical quest even when she may come across as naive or entitled. The twin tour guides Javier and Xander, both attracted to her for different reasons, have largely contrasting views of the world and of their own lives; while Javier is sociable and optimistic, and unrestrained in his developing attachment to Leah, Xavier is bitter and cynical, and can’t help but frame her endeavour as yet another example of the despicable societal phenomena he wishes to study.

The 3012, on the other hand, is centered on only two main experiences: those of Niloux, a heretic who questions the tenets of Laviaja, and of her nemesis Tanaaj, a religious conservative (which in her culture paints a very different picture than nowadays), who is however struggling with her repressed need for connections, and who may be paradoxically willing to compromise Laviaja’s peaceful mores to enforce its spiritual dogmas.

All in all, characters are interesting and believable in their own context, and I especially loved how the author was able to dive deep into perspectives much departed from our own. I was at first puzzled by Leah, whose characterisation comes across as surprisingly mundane, in comparison to the spiritual role she’s meant to play in the future – until I realised that not only I was often seen her from the point of view of other people, but that all her chapters were just as informed by her time’s philosophy as those set in the remote past and future; as such, even her mysticism couldn’t help but linger on the threshold between spirituality and delusion, pop culture and enlightenment.

Plot: The Actual Star features three plot arcs converging into one: in 1012, two Mayan princes prepare for their ascension to the throne, but become target of an uprising set to end their dynasty; in 2012, Leah travel to Belize to explore her roots and becomes obsessed with Actun Tunichil Muknal, where she believes to feel a connection to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld; in 3012, the almost-utopain civilisation built around the cult of Saint Leah is shaken when an audacious thinker starts questioning the transcendent reality of Xibalba, and the possibility of any society to evolve.

As you could guess by a quick comparison between this outline of the main storylines and the sheer size of the novel, none of the plots moves at an especially fast pace, instead taking all the time to explore each character’s extensive meditations. Most importantly, while there’s no lack of significant events and even some sprinkle of action, I was still left with the impression that the real story was happening on a different plane of existence, or at least between the facts portrayed on page.

That said, while I did appreciate that the book had implications much deeper than its explicit plot, I still had mixed feeling towards a few of its choices. For instance, I’m fine with not seeing all the steps that led to the development of the cult of Saint Leah, but how came to happen that an entire civilisation was built upon a few lines, hastily sketched on a notepad by a possibly delusional young tourist the day before her disappearance? As I said, it makes sense that the present-days portrayal of Leah is much less magical than her future reputation, however I was left with the impression that something was missing.

And then we have the grand finale. Where everything blends into a visionary vagueness that may or may not be real. Now, I surely didn’t expect a book like this to provide a clear-cut explanation of all its mysteries, however when an ending achieves this kind of vagueness, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it’s trying to sound smarter than it actually is; whether, just maybe, it’s steering away from any semblance of satisfactory conclusion not so much because answers are best left to the reader, but because frustrating the audience would make it sound more ‘literary’ in some way.

Themes & Overall Thoughts: The Actual Star is the kind of philosophical novel that deals with much more numerous themes than one could easily resume.

As I mentioned, the one that at first drew my attention was that of gender, and more specifically of a society that transcends our common distinctions. As someone who mainly experiences gender as a bunch of external – and not really welcome – rules and customs, but is well aware that many people do in fact see masculinity and femininity as the cornerstone of their identities, I can’t help but wonder how such a perception would change in a different society, where gender roles aren’t shoved down our throats from day one.

Now, in the future portrayed in The Actual Star, one’s choice of gender is entirely free of any pressure or discrimination, and even of physical conditioning since all bodies have all attributes; however, while ‘none’ is a perfectly valid choice, people still frequently align as something resembling to our binary genders, suggesting that they in fact run deeper than societal constructs. Which is, in fact, great once you remove all constrictions.

The 3012 storyline provides food for thought on a number of other topics, from cultural identity to the actual chance that humans could live well with no stable attachment; and, to reiterate once again, what matters is less how that specific society could realistically work, and more what we could learn from its concepts, as well as the capability to envision a non-nihilistic future.

The Actual Star, however, isn’t just a piece of social science fiction, but a wider work on cultural bias and myth-making. As discussed when analysing the character work, adopting different perspective isn’t just a narrative choice, but an essential motif of the novel; that applies to Xibalba, seen as a terrifying underworld or as an aspirational transcendence depending on the point of view, as well as to many other topics. Xavier’s scornful reflection on the “tourist gaze” isn’t just a random academic obsession, but yet another way to frame one’s personal experience; the reveal that Leah had a brain tumor isn’t meant to debunk the more spiritual side of her experience, but to suggest a present-day plausible explanation to something that would have been read very differently by another civilisation. In the future, people seem to be less tied to strict rationalism, combining science with what we’d consider supernatural beliefs – which is why the entire myth surrounding Leah has arisen to its role.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book… except when I did not? Let me explain – I loved reading this novel, I really appreciated how it pushed me to adopt different views and ask myself unusual questions, however I had occasionally the impression that it was trying to test my patience for its own sake (cue to me trying to read Kriol out loud in the hopes of grasping something), not to mention my reservation of purposefully opaque endings. Nevertheless, a very memorable read.

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