If you're a FEARnet regular (and if so, you rock), you've no doubt read about the works of two talented genre artists on these pages recently: author and artist Joshua Viola, who recently premiered the second chapter in the ongoing 3D interactive comic series The Bane of Yoto, based on his multi-award-winning novel; and Klayton of Celldweller, the electro-rock artist whose intense music has graced dozens of feature films, TV series, movie trailers, games and countless other genre media. The two artists collaborate frequently, and Celldweller's music is tied closely to the action in both Yoto installments.
Klayton's long-awaited studio album Wish Upon a Blackstar made its official debut last year, and though many of his works already have a narrative quality, I hadn't fully discovered the linear storyline contained within the songs on that album; the tracks stood up so well on their own that they had been released digitally over an extended period, and I was just digging them individually. But now the full story can be told – literally in this case, because Klayton has teamed up with Viola for the first Blackstar novel, premiering in serial eBook form. The first installment, Blackstar Act One: Purified, debuted recently along with an original Celldweller score, and I've been spending some quality time with both.
The first pages of Blackstar plunge you into the city of Central – humanity's only haven after a collision with rogue planet Solaris, which triggered a cataclysm known as the “Blackout.” Central is ruled by an apparently benevolent dictator named Kaine, who gains the loyalty and trust of Central's population thanks to a technology called Re:memory. This allows citizens to tap into Retros – the collective consciousness of long-dead generations – and relive memories that have otherwise passed into oblivion. Outside Kaine's control are renegades struggling for life in the toxic environment beyond the city walls, whose only access to Retros – which include long-forgotten survival skills – is on the black market.
That's the domain of our antihero Rezin – a “reaper” who can decrypt any data and sell that information to the highest bidder. Rezin doesn't even fully know how he came to be this way, apart from stolen memories he'd replayed for himself, and much of the novel's opening chapters capture Rezin's disorientation as he struggles to assemble the scattered thoughts and sensations into something he can comprehend. But those mad skills are in there, and he can exploit them for profit. Rezin's hacking into Re:memory lands him on Kaine's Most Wanted list, pursued by robots, assassins and Kaine's own superhuman perception. These escapades also bring him into contact with many unusual characters both in and outside of Central, including an underground musical group whose lyrics seem to contain encoded messages guiding him to an unknown destiny. As you might expect from an album-inspired tale, music and lyrics are key elements to the puzzle: songs, poems and ritual incantations slip in and out of Rezin's consciousness, along with a voice beckoning to him from beyond.
Fans of William Gibson's '80s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer and its many offshoots will find some parallels in Blackstar – particularly the central conceit of humans merging their neural systems with those of computers – and there's a certain Blade Runner feel to the seedy underworld of post-apocalyptic Detroit that captures the retro-futurist texture that permeates much of Gibson's work. But Viola's story evolves that concept into a much more fantastic realm, with travel through space and alternate dimensions playing a key role in Rezin's quest, and the spiritual aspects of cybernetic consciousness explored in the Matrix films have a much richer emotional life in Viola's skilled hands.
Klayton's short but potent soundtrack (more installments will be released with the next act of the book) is tightly linked to the plot, and tracks like “Retros” lay the groundwork for the world we've entered, even including some spoken-word narration. The instrumental tone and production often recalls Daft Punk's amazing score to Tron: Legacy, although the hard-hitting EDM anthem “Purified” is 100% Celldweller:
The spiritual messages seeping into Rezin's consciousness take musical form in “The Possibilities of Purpose,” and the story's underlying mystery is captured in the dreamier mood piece “Dystopian Utopia.” The chilling dark ambient sound design for “On the Surface of “Scardonia” sets the stage for the next act as the action moves to that strange world. The score is rounded out by cool instrumental versions of “Retros” and “Purified” that work well as standalone dance tracks.
In story and song, Blackstar Act One ends on many cliffhangers, as we arrive at Scardonia by the mysterious title device – a cyborg craft of incredible power which Rezin is shocked to discover he can merge with and control – and a pair of mysterious twins with ominous abilities who may present a direct link to Rezin's higher destiny. The subtitle of the next installment, Awakening, suggests that calling is about to manifest itself, and I'm stoked to learn how it plays out.