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|The Golden Age
by John C. Wright
Published by Tor Books, 2002
Amazon.com: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.ca: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback
Highly Recommended by: Elliot Hanowski
The Golden Age is the first volume of a science fiction trilogy. Its title has two or possibly three meanings. It is the label given to a bright time in the far future, when humanity enjoys unprecedented peace, wealth and knowledge. It also refers to the Golden Age of science fiction, when authors like A.E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov shaped the genre with epic, galaxy-spanning tales. Wright seeks to recapture that same sense of wonder in 21st century science fiction. It may also be a reference to the fabled Golden Age of Greek mythology, as Wright's tale is heavily influenced by a classical sensibility.
Phaethon, the protagonist, lives in a hugely complex civilization which spans the entire densely populated solar system, from the surface of the sun to frozen Neptune. The denizens of this civilization are descended from humans, but have split into a great many different kinds of life. These are classified mainly by what style of brain they use, since they can change body types quite readily. There are mass-minds, disembodied intelligences, super-intuitive Warlocks, purely logical beings, and a whole host of others, most integrated with highly advanced computers to one degree or another. Wright imagines a dazzling array of technologies, but manages to keep them intelligible and interesting to primitive contemporary humans.
Phaethon finds himself at a year-long masquerade ball full of delights and wonders. But soon questions begin to surface as he stumbles into puzzling situations and realizes that something is wrong with his memories. He resolves to find the truth, a decision that leads him to encounters with a mysterious Neptunian, the last remaining soldier of his civilization, various powerful Peers, massively intelligent Sophotechs, and even the Earthmind Herself, the personification of all combined terrestrial computer intelligence.
Wright's tale is a very old one the story of a rebel who becomes disaffected with utopia. Nevertheless, he tells it with freshness, verve and style, pulling the reader into a fascinating society. We witness a high-stakes legal battle waged by brilliant computers, a theatrical eco-system performance, and philosophical debates between post-human leaders. And even a utopia can become the site of unimaginable danger.
Wright was an atheist when he wrote this novel (he has since become a Christian.) However, his philosophical orientation was a conservative one, influenced by classical Stoicism. Therefore, unlike many contemporary atheists he was deeply concerned with truth, beauty and an objective standard of morality. This is clearly reflected in The Golden Age, and in his adventures Phaethon wrestles with many questions of ancient philosophy, which are given new meanings in an incredibly technologically-developed age. Religious readers will find much to reflect on and agree with here. On the other hand, there is also a theme of Romantic or Promethean defiance, the lone hero struggling against the restraints of convention, about which such readers will likely be more ambivalent.
Thus The Golden Age is enjoyable both as an exciting tale set in a mysterious future and also an intellectually stimulating work of scientific and philosophical extrapolation. I'm eagerly looking forward to reading the other volumes. (January, 2007)
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