Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star is one of two big novels released this year structured around parallel narratives in three distinct time periods. (The other is Matt Bell’s Appleseed.) Byrne herself is no stranger to parallel plotlines set at different points in history; her previous novel, 2014’s The Girl in the Road, also made use of this device, albeit a little closer together, temporally speaking. The Actual Star, like Appleseed and Alan Garner’s Red Shift, offers plenty of time between its respective strands. These are books about the ways that one day’s urgent events can become ancient history from someone else’s perspective. It’s not hard to see what draws certain writers to this.
In The Actual Star, this sense of parallel timelines makes use of an especially grand scale; a thousand years separates each of the three timeframes. They’re set in 1012, 2012, and 3012 CE, respectively; a constant motif in the novel is seeing how the events described in one part are faithfully (or not) remembered a millennium later. Complicating this somewhat is another recurring motif: that of a trio of characters who recur in each of the timeframes. Reincarnation is taken as a fact of life by the planetwide culture of the 3012 sections—though this is handled subtly, closer to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas than Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt.
Each of the three segments could stand on its own relatively well as a short novel; even so, the way these plotlines converge makes each one stronger. There’s a point at the end of A.S. Byatt’s Possession—a book about the study of history—in which Byatt reveals just what has been left out of the historical record that her novel focuses on, and The Actual Star at times feels like a sprawling meditation on that, along with a host of other topics.
In 1012, twins Ixul and Ajul, and their sister Ket, deal with the challenges of power and the twins’ pending rule over a Maya kingdom in what is now Belize. The dynamic between the three siblings is established quickly: The twins are enmeshed in a clandestine relationship, while Ket’s interests tend towards the more mystical. A thousand years after that, a young woman named Leah makes plans to leave her home in Minnesota to travel to Belize, where her father lived, and to explore Actun Tunichil Muknal, a sacred cave with a deep historical meaning. And a thousand years after that, in a world transformed by climate change—the novel’s prologue notes that “the last of the world’s ice is gone”—a philosophical debate between Niloux and Tanaaj, dueling political thinkers, threatens to upend society.
This is an epic, visceral novel—and one in which several characters engage in self-cutting. It’s also an eminently philosophical one, in which the question of the nature of Xibalba is at the heart of these three parallel narratives. As a whole, then, it’s a book about human transcendence, and whether or not that should be taken as a matter of faith or as a more metaphorical (and achievable) goal.
If that sounds like I’m being vague, I am; part of the pleasure of reading this book is in seeing just where the different timelines link up. In the first chapter in which the reader encounters Niloux, for instance, we’ll learn that Leah is regarded as a saint at that moment in history, so figuring out how her travels through Belize will result in canonization centuries later becomes an ongoing source of suspense throughout the book. But there are other, less overt, moments in this vein as well; re-reading passages to write this review, it became more clear the extent to which Byrne lays the groundwork early on for some of these connections, and some of the larger plot twists to come.
And while the historical and present-day (well, present day minus nine years) segments are wholly compelling, it’s Byrne’s future society that stands out as a massive achievement. Laviaja, described in a glossary in the back of the novel as a “global system of nomadic, subsidiaries, anarchist self-organization,” is fascinating both for the extent to which it’s described, as well as for its rather unique place in science fiction: It’s a society set in the aftermath of a massive, even apocalyptic event that seems like somewhere you’d want to live.
Admittedly, it’s also fundamentally different from our own society in a number of ways, from societal units to body modification, some of which come up over the course of the novel and some of which turn up in the glossary. And while this society feels thoroughly lived-in, it also doesn’t feel perfect—you can see why some people would chafe at their society’s prohibition on large traveling groups, for instance. And, more broadly, Byrne puts this into a larger context, making all three of this novel’s time periods feel as though they’re set in lived-in societies, with all of the flaws that that implies.
The Actual Star is not a book that engages in much hand-holding. Most of its readers will find themselves immersed in two cultures very different from the one with which they’re most familiar. But this novel bristles with ambition, asks unfamiliar questions, and has one of the most effective examples of worldbuilding you’re likely to see on a page this year. It meticulously shapes its own territory, and draws a new map of what the genre can do— while rooting that in its characters’ own investigations into the world.