THE ACTUAL STAR: A conversation with Hal Stern.

Author photo credit: Marion Ettlinger.

I had the distinct pleasure of conversing with Hal Stern about The Actual Star. By day, Hal is a technology executive with a pharmaceutical company, and by non-day an avid consumer of sci-fi, music and good sandwiches. He writes on Medium and Substack. And, well, he asks damn good questions. See his intro and the conversation below.

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TL;DR version: I got to interview Monica Byrne about her new book, The Actual Star, which is one of the most thought-provoking and hope-filled books I’ve read in a few years. If Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt and Remember is the scientific template for our long-term survival, then The Actual Star is its future hagiography.

Full backstory: I’ve been asked a few times “How do you get to interview writers?” It’s basic business networking–I ask a question about their themes or ideas (usually via Twitter or Instagram), the conversation turns to an application or interpretation of their work, and it expands from there. The same pattern played out after I read Monica Byrne’s The Girl In The Road last spring–I read it as a hajj or pilgrimage story, and asked her about some references, ended up joining her Patreon (please support writers), and then received an early copy of The Actual Star. Our email threads after I raced to finish the book covered religion as a startup, symbolism that puts F. Scott Fitzgerald to shame, acrostic clues in the text, threads I missed and those I interpreted through the weave of the three parallel storylines. In addition to being an exciting and daring book, it’s crafted with care so you can easily, stealthily, breathlessly follow what took nine years–and the merging of three book ideas–to complete.

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Stern: First up, thank you for sitting down at parallel keyboards to talk about The Actual Star. I absolutely loved the book as it integrated so many approaches I treasure: parallel storytelling, our feelings of place and space, how and why we create myths and their pageantry, and a post-climate apocalypse future where the kids are remarkably alright.

Can we start with the basic structure of the book? It’s told as three parallel stories set 1,000 years apart. The past is set in the late stages of the Maya people in Belize in 1012; the current timeline follows a young woman from Minnesota as she searches for her roots in 2012; and the future is in a nomadic, highly fluid society where only eight million people have survived economic and climate disaster.

Byrne: If you can believe it, I originally imagined it as a trilogy of three separate books. That’s how we first tried to sell it in 2016. We submitted the first book (the 1012 era, called The Nameless Days) and an outline of the other two. Editors were intrigued, but just couldn’t visualize the whole picture. One editor, in his kind rejection, suggested combining all three books into one. So after a period of mourning, I went to a coffee shop, made color-coded index cards for every scene, and spent a whole day just arranging them on a big wooden table. I eventually settled on a structure of 1012-2012-3012-repeat, because with so much to keep track of, a chronological order imposed some sense of familiarity.

Stern: Once I found the first link between the three timelines, I was reminded of the “ah ha” moment I had during the This Is Us pilot episode. Your parallel storylines are elegantly crafted with Easter eggs dropped forward through time and sometimes space. I’m going to have to read this at least one more time to find and cherish them and their reflections.

Byrne: That makes me so happy! This is a weird book, because once you read how each timeline ends, it changes the way you read the other two. So ideally, it’s meant to be read twice–once to see what happens, and then again, to see all of the foreshadowing seeded throughout. That happened with me, too!–every time I revised, I found new threads to connect.

Stern: I first described The Actual Star as the evolution of pageantry over 2,000 years, rooted in religion and our social views of religion. An old boss used to joke that religions are the worst startup because they take 1,000 years to get their models right–but you jumped right into that evolution of belief systems. So much of the book resonated with me around aspects of storytelling, myth creation, and our interpretation and personalization of those over long periods of time.

Byrne: I definitely thought a lot about how religions evolve. I saw a beautiful statue of John the Baptist recently, and thought about how he was just this filthy skinny guy in the desert two thousand years ago, wearing goat skins and yelling at people; and now there are statues of him all over the world, carved in marble and gold. How did that happen! It’s mind-boggling. Why him, and not some other skinny guy in the desert? (That’s why I put in Niloux’s line, “History is so arbitrary. Let that be recorded.”)

In terms of evolution, of course the religion I know best is Catholicism, which has done a terrific job of upending everything Jesus ever stood for. But no religion or ideology is exempt from this: the founding feeling, that sets a generation afire, becomes rigid dogma; and worse, it becomes the excuse for abuses of power. You definitely see that happen in the 3012 timeline, when both sides are so convinced of their rightness.

Stern: When working on “The Clock of the Long Now,” (a clock that will run for 10,000 years), Danny Hillis told me that anything we intend to survive for a long time becomes a religion. As you explore the rise and fall of religious practice, with the central era–the Age of Emergency–dominated by capitalism, I have to ask: Is capitalism our current religion? Is hoarding an extreme (fanatical) form of capitalism?

Byrne: Those in Laviaja would consider us all hoarders. Me included. I have a whole apartment full of Stuff–even that is grotesque to viajeras. But of course, they’d think far worse of those who accumulated far more. They consider billionaires psychopaths, and honestly, so do I.

There are many aspects of capitalism that have the feeling of incontrovertible gospel; for example, the idea that growth is only ever good. I was shocked when I found out they don’t even teach degrowth in business schools; then again, I shouldn’t be. How would business schools continue to exist without the endowments of the high holy elders of capitalism, who won the game, by exploiting laborers for decades? These are not bastions of truth or ethics. There are rules about what you can and can’t say, what you can and can’t challenge. That definitely has commonalities with fundamentalist religion.

Stern: Threads of loss–of family, of belief systems, of totems–are so carefully woven through the story. Your discussion of the Maya diaspora–not disappearance–is equally lovely, as seen through modern-day Leah’s eyes. The story of the Maya people is told indirectly through Leah and then amplified in the future timeline. There is longevity in those stories even if there is no direct lineage; it made me think of your essay, “The End Of My Line.” 

Byrne: Absolutely. There are so many ways to be a mother. I think I learned that early, when I lost my own mother, and so many other kinds of mothering filled in the vacuum–self-mothering, sister-mothering, aunt-mothering, mentor-mothering, father-mothering, future-generation-mothering. All of those roles feel far more important to me than actually birthing a child from my own body, and I’m grateful for that clarity, especially as we enter such a time of global uncertainty.

Stern: There is this continuous balancing act between what is real and what is not that amplifies the religious themes. It was most obvious to me in the future era scenes where psilocybin is taken in efforts to discover the “god of a place.” There are shades of everything from ritual wine to Carlos Castenada in there, and it’s a fantastic way to push on the question of “what is actual?”

Byrne: Totally.One of the hallmarks of the psychedelic experience is the “noetic quality.” That is, you have no doubt that the truths you’re experiencing are real, actual, timeless. That’s how I tried to describe the gods in the ancient Maya timeline: when you see the gods, you know they’re gods, because you have no doubt that they’re gods. You just know. And that certainty stays, even when you come out from under the influence.

Stern: I want to explore this idea of a “god of a place” a bit more. You and I have strong connections to certain geophysical locations–for me it’s Prague and Kiev. The first time I walked through Prague, horribly jet lagged, at 5am, I felt that I was retracing the footsteps of my family going back three generations. I didn’t even have to get into the Slivovitz to feel that I had some personal history there; on the other extreme I was a slobbering mess after visiting the Babi Yar memorial in Kiev. I felt like I was walking on the remains of relatives of that same Prague-grounded generation.

Byrne: Yes, yes, yes. That’s real. I’ve felt it many times too, and that’s the feeling I was trying to codify into, well, a whole book. Why do we feel so drawn to some places and not others? Even if we don’t have ancestry there? Belize draws me back over and over–and I feel similar callings back to Kerala and Iran–but other places, like Costa Rica or San Francisco, feel barren. For a materialist or atheist, maybe that feeling can be explained as the resurfacing of some subconscious memory. But for me as a theist, it feels like evidence of reincarnation, possession, and/or ancestral memory. It’s no coincidence that I first went to Belize because my mother had taught there in 1963. She loved it and always wanted to go back, but never was able to before she died. Even then, I felt like I was going “for” her–I just had no idea how strongly I would feel once I got there.

Stern: Against this backdrop of religious evolution, you’ve created this incredible future world with a gender and work identity system that eludes our preconceived or biased notions by simply starting from the ground up. 

Byrne: The gender system was a long time evolving. Originally, I used the word “gender” to encompass the entirety of a person’s identity. But then I hired an amazing consultant who’s the head of the Transgender Health Program at UNC, who patiently educated me on the fact that gender, orientation, and penetrative preference are all distinct from each other. For example, she said, a kid generally knows what they are (girl/boy/nonbinary/agender) by a very young age; and later in puberty, usually a general preference develops toward one mode of sexual action (penetrative/receptive/both/neither). So that’s how the genéra/manéra/preféra system came about. It’s based on the most current science!

Stern: Add in to that mix the idea that a profession is selected, trained through osmosis and then practiced with guidance from the all-seeing, resource-balancing ai. In “The End of My Line,” you describe writing out a future family map of names of professions, and your sister questioning this planned family, “How will you control what they’ll be?” I think you answered the question with your gender and vocation fluidity; it’s not just what, but who they will be. 

Byrne: Right. The idea is that everyone performs certain essential tasks as needed by the local collective–maintenance, cleaning, repair, companionship–that ensure everyone’s basic needs are met. But the rest of the time is free to pursue your vocation. That could be anything–observing wildlife, making art, taking care of children, studying supernovae, and so on. That’s an extreme version of what people hope would happen with UBI–that anyone would be free to pursue what they love, and the world would be a better place for it. (I should also say that I got this model from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which illustrates these principles in action more beautifully than anywhere else I’ve seen.)

Stern: There’s a lot of sci-fi that speculates about children being raised in communal creches, freeing the adults for more critical roles piloting ships or blowing things up. Your world separates children and their birth parents to eliminate temptations of selfishness (which would lead to hoarding again) and to emphasize the global village raising the child. I’m reminded of the synthetic families created in the Rwandan Agohozo-Shalom Youth Village for children orphaned by the genocide in that country. In both cases the synthetic family model–your zadres–provides structure to move past exceptionally difficult times of loss like your Age of Emergency.

Byrne: I didn’t know about the Rwandan models! That is fascinating. I also got the idea of shared, detached parenting from The Dispossessed. It seemed important to me to specify “Esta ninx es tu ninx” and not “Cada ninx es tu ninx”–we can’t care for every child, world over; we can only care for the child in front of us. But if everyone does that, (and is ensured by algorithm wherever there are gaps), then theoretically, every child would be taken care of. It’s a utopian vision, but….that’s the point, as Niloux says during the dinner in Persia. “This is as close as we’re ever going to get. And we’re still unhappy!”

Stern: You seem to have spent considerable energy on naming people, creating linkages across the timelines and suggesting all sorts of interpretation. There are acrostic identity clues, much like the strange initial-named siblings in Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.

Byrne: Well hell, I need to read that. And yes, I took the naming convention straight from Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, with a slight change–instead of the reincarnated characters’ names beginning with an I, B, K, or S, my reincarnated characters’ names each contain an X, a J, and an E.

(Tanaaj’s name was actually “Saraaj” for the majority of writing, and if I’m honest, that’s the name I still think of her by. I changed it because I was so frustrated with how I was writing her–passive, reactive–that I thought if I gave her a “stronger” sounding name, it’d be easier to write her as a more active character. It did help a little, but now I want to go back and change it back to Saraaj. Oh well, too late!)

Stern: Your post-capitalism world is managed by a true invisible hand–the aug and the ai that powers it. There are so many subtleties and the number of things left ambiguous was wonderful–you let your readers think about what makes sense for them, and in doing so we end up at different views of the future era. I found myself questioning the actual creators of the ai (who runs it? where is it? how is it powered? how much bias was infused into it, or how is the bias removed as the Age of Emergency came to an end? Or is it post Emergent?). What kind of germline editing was necessary for pelt creation? Why do pelts only manipulate secondary sexual characteristics? I thought this was an elegant way of marrying the gender and sexual preference into the story without needing four sexes or explaining how reproduction would work.

Byrne: I’m somewhat chagrined to admit that I got the idea for decentralized computing from HBO’s Silicon Valley. The only computing I ever learned officially was binary in seventh grade, so I’m probably going to use very clunky and inexact language here, but my idea about who “runs” the ai is that it’s a distributed decentralized network. So everyone carries a little bit of it in their implants; or even further, there are processing nodes planted everywhere in the landscape, like seeds. It’s just such an integrated software-hardware world that we have a hard time imagining it.

As for the ai aspect–yeah, I left that ambiguous partly because it’d be such a vast subject, and I wanted to create only as much of the history as I needed to to write the story. (One of scifi novelists’ favorite ways to procrastinate is endless, compulsive worldbuilding. In some cases I had to catch myself and just say, you know what? I’m not trying to invent these damn technologies. I’m just showing how they work in my characters’ daily lives.) And as for bias–the character Keira in Kaua’i mentions that she mostly gets assigned algorithm maintenance, meaning, bias weeding. As if bias were a weed that sprouts up and needs constant identification and pulling out, both on a local and global level.

Stern: In our early discussion of The Actual Star you mentioned the privacy aspects of the ai, the panopticon that records reality for global review, including criminal action. The first places my brain went were the Amish concept of shunning, the social capital whuffie accrued in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom, and aspects of shame. And likely Cory Doctorow’s views of privacy and pervasive monitoring and mine diverge here: I didn’t see the ai as endangering privacy because you challenge the notions of privacy with your future state: money, healthcare, sex, even religious views are lived out loud, publicly and communally. There’s a neat balance of healthy agency versus directed action from the ai. It’s a stark contrast to Shoshanna Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, because in a post-capitalist (and significantly smaller) society, the value of surveillance isn’t about directing action. If the aug provides relative assurance that the equitable distribution of attention and resources works to my advantage, then it’s significantly preferable to the panopticon that makes me an advertising target in our current system. It also bumps into this tenor of shame and vulnerability around religious practice; it’s been wrapped in the concept of confession whether it’s with a priest or the public Jewish confessional on Yom Kippur. It starts with teenaged Leah and carries forward into your “scrupes” who once again manage to pull shame from the vulnerability introduced by the aug.

Byrne: Right. A political scientist friend once explained to me that the original concept of the panopticon wasn’t just the guards monitoring the prisoners, but also society monitoring the guards. So it was less a one-way totalitarianism than a system of communal accountability. Can it still be abused? Absolutely, especially when there’s money to be made. But what if there isn’t? What value does privacy continue to have if there is no (or very little) discrimination and everyone’s needs are met? I don’t pretend to answer this question definitively, but I definitely pose it in the book. (I know that Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg and the other tech titans would say, they agree on privacy being overrated–but that’s because they enrich themselves and their stockholders from its exploitation. Different thing.)

Stern: The final comment I’ll offer is a bit of a reading guide.  Once I got about six chapters in I found it very helpful to consume the vocabulary guide in the end matter. Sounding out the Kriol slowly helped read it more quickly, which is important as the current timeline story evolves, and don’t be afraid to translate some of the high Spanish so you don’t miss the subtleties of naming. I loved the fact that I had to work at understanding the book, and even a few weeks after my first read, I’m continuing to turn it over and find new facets. It’s definitely going on the holiday gift list, and thanks again for making us think.

Byrne: Fantastic. And yes! If you can’t figure something out from context clues, the glossary and Google Translate are your friends!

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