The SFF Librarian Reviews: The Actual Star by Monica Byrne

SFF Librarian Reviews

Jeremy Brett

As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.

Let’s explore strange new worlds together!

Under Review:

The Actual Star. By Monica Byrne. Harper Voyager, September 14, 2021.

Well. Having just finished The Actual Star (Harper Voyager, 2021, $27.99), the new novel by Monica Byrne, I find myself blown away by the epic sweep, emotional complexity, and intensely thoughtful socioeconomic structural building Byrne brings to her work. This is Byrne’s first novel since her 2015 near-future quest novel The Girl in the Road, and she has put the 6 years since that book to sharp and powerful effect. The Girl in the Road itself was a wonderful novel, giving readers a sense of Byrne’s social consciousness and her ability to project a realistic human future; now with Actual Star she has beautifully welded those to a multi-millennial saga that links three distinct times together with, among other things, Mayan culture and legend, the recurring image of twins (grounded in the Hero Twins of Mayan tradition), and the eternal human search for a supranatural place of perfection that exists beyond the merely seen and merely lived.  

That place is called Xibalba (the Mayan underworld), and we see traces of it again and again throughout the novel as both it and humanity’s progress extends into deep time. Deep indeed—the novel is spread out over 2000 years of human existence, divided into three interwoven sections, centered on the same small portion of western Belize, and plagued by potential disaster at each instance of time. The first section is set in 1012, in the twilight of high Mayan culture (at the start of what some historians have termed the “collapse of the Maya”, although, as Byrne takes pains to point out, the Maya never died out, and never disappeared). In the city-state of Tzoyna, two royal siblings—twins Ajul and Ixul—prepare to become the rulers of their small kingdom, in the process performing the ritual duties they owe towards Xibalba, and anxious not to let their little corner of the Mayan world fade away. 

A thousand years on, in 2012 (the end of the Mayan Long Count, a year of transition, that many today will remember as filled with bogus apocalyptic nonsense and pseudoscience), young white-Mayan Minnesotan Leah Oliveri travels to her ancestral town Cayo in Belize, in search of her cultural roots and something bigger than herself—namely, Xibalba, “another universe, a realm of divine forms, of which all things here were merely reflections and shadows”. The actions she takes will have deep repercussions for the world to come. And further into the future, in 3012, the world has been radically reshaped both by climate change and by a new way of living and being that has restructured the entirety of human society. Two different travelers—Niloux DeCayo and Tanaaj DeCayo—represent, respectively, the inquisitive spirit that leads to philosophical change, and the conviction of belief in the rightness of the present moment. That fundamental incompatibility creates a perilous and threatening social situation when each figure develops a strong popular following that sees the other as wrong about the bedrock nature of the world, particularly the nature of Xibalba.

The nature of change/stasis is a dominant theme in The Actual Star. (This even extends to the title—“actual” means ‘correct’ or ‘verifiable’, suggesting the quality of definiteness, but “the actual star” (or la Estrella Actual, as it is called in 3012) refers to different things across time: the canon of sacred performative literature around which Laviaja, the dominant social philosophy of Byrne’s future, is based; the literal morning star Venus; the reflected eye of a whip spider. Byrne quotes C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Leah notes to Javier, one of her guides to a mysterious Mayan cave: “What you said in the cave today, about the star. It reminded me of this line where one character says something like, a star is a ball of gas, and then another character says, ‘That’s only what a star is made of, not what it is.’ I think it’s the most important line in the story, but,” she pointed to the movie, “they leave it out”.

What is the nature of the world we live in, and does it change when the visible trappings of the world change? In 1012, Ixul and Ajul face looming political and social upheaval, but does this change what Xibalba and the rituals surrounding it mean? In our own time, as one Long Count ends and another begins, the planet is being forever remade by climate change—how do we find what is constant and true in that swirl of transformation? And in 3012, the last of the Earth’s ice has finally melted away and humanity has achieved what many see as the perfect society, requiring no further change. But is change a part of our fundamental natures as human beings: do we need change to survive, whatever the cost? These are heady (sometimes even contradictory) questions, and Byrne wisely makes no attempt to answer them all. Xibalba stands in for the human quest for transformation, and even its nature changes from age to age depending on the observer. As Niloux observes in the book’s prologue: “But now I want to propose that Xibalba is not a real physical place at all. That rather, what we call Xibalba is just a shift in our lived reality” . Early in the book, Niloux risks herself in pushing for a new way of thinking before a hostile tribunal:

We live in utopia. Right now. I hate to tell you, but this is as close as humankind is ever going to get. The world has been at peace for four hundred years. We can control our metabolisms. We have endurance and heat tolerance. We’ve reengineered the planet for freedom of human movement. We can learn any subject or skill in hours. No one goes hungry. No one is imprisoned. No one fears violence. No one lacks shelter or companionship or medicine. Everyone has an equal voice in local tzoynas or the global Tzoyna…Any system will fragment. That’s entropy. Stratifications always form in any social system, no matter how hard we try to prevent them…I’m saying that all systems change, but we can choose to direct that change for the good. Utopia is dynamic.

Niloux is opposed by a society that has evolved this utopia out of great need, out of fear of disorder and disarray, and out of a slow conversion of Leah’s thousand years ago-story of a tourist’s journey of inner exploration into a worldwide religion with its own rituals and sacraments. Change causes a cascade of further change, and attempts to halt change only produce more of it. Transformation is an ever-present human and planetary phenomenon.

The Actual Star is one of the most intelligent SF novels I’ve come across in some time. The 31st-century sections are marked by Byrne’s clever linguistic mélange that reflects a truly multicultural society in all its complexity, and Byrne has a gift for distilling multifaceted subjects into single words and phrases—such as “viajera” or “manera”. (Fortunately, she provides a glossary at book’s end.) Byrne’s worldbuilding for her future sociopolitical system of Laviaja is not laid out clumsily in long dull descriptions, but rather organically through the lived experiences of her characters; this gives the novel a very naturalistic and immersive feel for the reader. And Laviaja itself is a fascinating and elaborate social construction, in which the constantly on-the-move existence mandated of climate refugees for hundreds of years transforms into a global system of nomadic and virtually anarchist cooperative settlement contemptuous of permanent ownership and dedicated to the search for one’s passage to Xibalba. Byrne expertly delineates the nature of Laviaja, in the process showing her readers how humanity has evolved new frames of identification for itself—in gender, in sexual orientation, in its relationship to labor, in ethnic identity, in so many ways. Byrne is a beautifully transformative creator, who observes our current conditions and takes them to a logical future conclusion. She is a writer of great vision, from whom I imagine greater and greater things will come in the future.

Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world. 

Transparency Statement

This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. No review copies were arranged by ARB.

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