THE ACTUAL STAR by Monica Byrne (BOOK REVIEW)
“The drink, the drums, the dance: as ever, these were the engines of the alteration of ordinary time. Xibalba felt so close, the liminal, the numinous, the unknowable. The Other World permeated this world, constantly, to be felt in art and song and dance and herb and drink; but never touched. She could never touch it.”
“Xibalba exists in the very same space as we do. It is with us, it is all around us, like two circles overlapping. Xibalba is the place behind the place. We cannot reach it; we can only see it, but there are some places in time and space where the borders are thinner than others. The underworld is such a place.”
Monica Byrne’s debut novel The Girl In The Road (2014) marked her out as an exciting and vital new voice in speculative fiction. Here was a book that had the ambition, complexity and craft to tackle big ideas around climate change, shifts in populations and advances in energy technology whilst at the same time masterfully drawing the reader into the inner lives of its two protagonists. It has been a long wait for her second novel, The Actual Star (2021), but it has most definitely been worth it. Byrne’s new book is even more ambitious and complex than The Girl In The Road, and somehow manages to pull it all off. Split between three timelines, taking in Mayan philosophy and cosmology, far future speculation and reincarnation, The Actual Star is a speculative fiction masterpiece that speaks to our current anxieties and concerns whilst imagining a way through them. Dizzying in its implication and epic in scope, it nevertheless is a book of real human warmth and understanding, firmly rooted in the lived experiences of its characters. Frankly it’s ridiculously exciting to be reading and reviewing speculative fiction when a work like this comes out. I know I will be mulling over its implications for years to come.
The Actual Star tells a complex, multi-generational story across three distinct timelines. In 1012, in Tzoyna, Ajul and Ixul, descendants of the legendary Hero Twins, prepare for their coronation to lead their people to a new golden age. In 2012, Leah Oliveri, a descendent of the Mayans, visits modern-day Belize for the first time to connect with her heritage, where she meets tour guides Xander Cañul and Javier Magaña, two estranged twins working as tour guides at the Actun Tunichil Muknal, a cave sacred to the Mayans that Leah finds herself mysteriously drawn to. In the year 3012, Leah has become a saint and her life mythology. In a utopian future where people live the life of Laviaja, a nomadic lifestyle that has evolved as a response to climate change, the very foundations of this lifestyle is threatened when Niloux DeCayo’s proposal that Xibalba, the Other World, is just a metaphor and that Saint Leah did not in fact cross over, reawakens schisms within the formerly peaceful society. All three storylines converge as fate brings multiple generations of characters towards the secrets lying in the heart of Actun Tunichil Muknal.
The Actual Star is a multifaceted book, one that sets out to achieve many things. It is in part a historical imagining of the Mayas, in which Byrne reconstructs the world of Ajul and Ixul, starting with the few recorded documents that have survived. It is also an exploration of the complex relationship between third world countries like Belize and first world countries like the USA. And it is also an exercise in utopian extrapolation, imagining ways in which society might reorganise itself in response to the catastrophes of the present so that we may live with each other and the world itself in a better way. Byrne expertly interweaves these strands, creating a work that explores how the past influences the present and the future, and how the present and the future reinterpret the past as story and legend to suit their new concerns. Underlying it all is the idea of reincarnation, as we follow these hero twins throughout multiple iterations, their fates determined as much by their powerful love for each other as their radically different ways of seeing and experiencing the world.
Mayan cosmology runs through and informs all three strands of the book. Xibalba, the underworld or “place of fear/wonder” in ancient Mayan beliefs, is brought nearer to our world by blood sacrifices. Ajul and Ixul soon learn that sacrifice will require more of them than the blood of their captives, as they are drawn to face their own mortality. Xibalba becomes a cornerstone of Laviaja, with viajeras believing they are exiles from this Other World, and can only reach it through constantly travelling the Earth until you find your cortada, a rip in spacetime that will allow you to cross over. This sense of following a path of your past life until you find a place that calls to you is central to Leah’s journey to the sacred caves in Belize, and following her disappearance, it becomes a religion, largely built through the work of Xander and Javier. By the time of 3012, many people have found their cortadas and disappeared, making Xibalba a concrete belief for the viajeras, but the decreasing frequency of disappearances leads Niloux to believe that Laviaja is stagnating into rigid tradition and ritual. She is countered by Tanaaj DeCayo, who fervently believes in the Laviaja philosophy and fears change. Laviaja is built on the idea of reducing attachments to place and to other people in response to the hoarding of resources that led to all the horrors of our current time, but Byrne deftly explores how utopia must be a constantly changing and evolving process if it is to survive.
All of this should give you some idea of the complexity and breadth of ideas explored in The Actual Star, but it only scratches the surface. Byrne’s novel explores ideas around sexuality and gender, imagining a present and future in which stigma and shame are removed from sexual expression. The viajeras of 3012 have both male and female reproductive organs, use the universal pronoun she/her in deference to Saint Leah, and have a healthily open relationship to desire shaped by mutual consent and preferences. In the characters of Xander and Javier, Byrne explores the ambivalent attitude many in Belize have towards tourism. Xander himself is fascinated with the tourist gaze, how the combination of privilege and entitlement shape how tourists view his country, and wants to study it at university, but his lack of privilege as a Belize citizen stands in between him and his academic dreams of studying in the USA. Byrne expertly weaves all these strands together, all whilst keeping a tight focus on the inner lives of her characters.
In its exploration of utopianism and its dissection of the power differentials that shape our lives, The Actual Star recalls the best work of writers like Octavia E. Butler or Ursula K. Le Guin. Byrne’s novel is one that shows us how late period capitalism, the legacy of colonialism and the human-caused destruction of our planet embroil us all in their web, but it also dares to imagine how we might survive these crises and reorganise ourselves to live better with each other and with the world. It does all this whilst acknowledging the very human strengths and weaknesses that shape how we interact with and see the world. It is a remarkable achievement, and one that should see Byrne take her rightful place with speculative fiction’s very best.