The Golden Age Trilogy, John C. Wright

SFBC, 2003, 848 pages, US$17.99 hc, ISBN 0-7394-3965-0

(Omnibus containing The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant and The Golden Transcendence)

Whew. Whoah. Wow.

It’s difficult to be coherent after reading through The Golden Age Trilogy, John C. Wright’s bravura debut performance. A dense idea-a-page vision of a far future where no certitudes remain, this trilogy is a challenge in more ways than one: Packed with concepts, it will defy critics, exhaust readers and make fellow SF writers whimper in despairing envy. I loved it without reservations, but history will note that it took me five months to read it from the first to the last page.

For someone who reads SF for its heady mix of ideas, philosophy, speculations and intellectual daring, The Golden Age Trilogy is a dream come true. It comes close to Charles Stross’ Accelerando in sheer density of new ideas, and I never thought I’d write this so soon after reading Accelerando. I note with some humility that The Golden Age Trilogy predates Stross’ masterpiece (and Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes, with which it has a number of speculative similarities) by two years, leading me to wonder how I could have missed the series when it first came out.

Not that the wait didn’t have its side benefits: Originally published by Tor as The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant and The Golden Transcendence in 2002 and 2003, The Golden Age Trilogy was republished in an omnibus edition by the Science-Fiction Book Club, and there’s little doubt in my mind that this is the preferred edition of the story. While the trilogy has natural breaks in the action that allowed for a three-volume split, it was really conceived as a single story.

In a few words, The Golden Age Trilogy is post-singularity science fiction in which our protagonist, Phaeton, discovers decade-long gaps in his memory. Upon investigations, he is very clearly told that he himself placed those memory locks, and that dire things would happen if he chose to override them, up to and including bankruptcy and existential exile from the “Golden Oecumene” in which he lives like a god. It goes without saying that he’ll become too curious for his own good, especially after convincing himself that the very existence of the Golden Oecumene is at stake.

There’s a lot more to it, though. Fully half the fun of The Golden Age Trilogy is in discovering the wonderful world of the Oecumene, which has long since been freed from most human problems. Thanks to neural modifications, universal omnipotence and careful eugenics, death is extinct, crime is literally non-existent; police enforcement has been delegated to only one individual. Post-humans have immesurable IQs, multiple avatars, fabulous dwellings, all-powerful AI assistants (House AI “Rhadamantus” is one of the book’s highlight) and infinite possibilities for entertainment or achievement. But not all is well in paradise, as Phaeton discovers. For instance, there’s the curious matter of extra-solar exploration, quickly abandoned after only one failed colony…

From the very first chapter, The Golden Age Trilogy has the scope and inventiveness of the very best science-fiction. Wright writes with verve and seemingly bottomless invention: There are enough ideas here to fill a trilogy of trilogies. The characters of the story effortlessly move within a world where post-humans are only one type of intelligence (watch out for those sophotechs!), and where everything we know (including notions like gender, bodies, reality, memory, and so on) are infinitely mutable. In one mind-twisting sequence late in the first book of the trilogy, Phaeton breaks the memory locks and causes people across the entire solar system to remember what had been forbidden. Whew! Elsewhere in the trilogy, a stairway to heaven is climbed down, nanotechnology is used to all purposes and a mile-long spaceship acts as a MacGuffin. The first volume takes place mostly in enhanced reality (with occasional cold glimpses of raw environments), but the second puts Phaeton smack down into good old mortality, with compelling results. The third volume is almost too wild for words, ascending and switching between levels of reality with post-human glee.

This isn’t your father’s science-fiction, and yet the trilogy is infused with classical concepts. Wright is smarter than his readers and isn’t shy about proving it: His prose style has a classical rigour and sophistication that is surprisingly pleasant to read. As character conversations essentially amount to legal arguments, it’s easy to be swept along with the cadence and vocabulary of a style whose roots go straight to Latin and Greek literature: The prose is only a part of it.

Then there’s a surprising amount of comedy: Daphne, Phaeton’s wife, is blessed with an increasing number of great lines as the story advances and she assumes the mantle of the pragmatic reader stand-in. (On the other hand, for all the infinitely changing nature of the Oecumene, it’s all too easy to picture Phaeton as the square-jawed hero and Daphne as the swooning love interest.)

The Golden Age Trilogy is an impressive achievement. It’s not light reading, through. Daunted by the length of the book, the density of the prose and the overall lack of narrative drive (I wanted to know what happened next; I just wasn’t in a hurry to find out), it took me five months of reading, sometimes only a few pages per day interspersed between other books, to make my way from one cover to another. This isn’t a book made for casual beach-side entertainment: Wright is after meatier intellectual objectives. The future of the human race, the philosophical point of continued civilization and the very nature of the truths we hold to be self-evident are all discussed here, sometime in labyrinthine detail.

Generally speaking, the first third of the book is the most worthwhile: There’s a glorious spirit of discovery to Wright’s imagined universe, and the sheer density of concepts to grasp all at once makes for high-intensity reading. The two other thirds are a bit more talky, a bit less surprising, a bit too twisty for their own sake. They’re still enjoyable, but by the time the story reaches its conclusion, it’s entirely acceptable to mutter dark sentiments of will-you-finish-the-story-already?

It also strikes me that my idiosyncratic reaction to the book, exhausted, sometimes exasperated but satisfied and definitely awed, is unlikely to be shared by other readers. I can imagine some readers giving up on the book. Looking around the web for other critical assessments, I see that a number of other readers were more baffled than satisfied.

This, in turn, may serve to explain why the series as a whole, and the first book in particular, didn’t get the level of acclaim that such a blockbuster series should have earned. None of the books got anywhere close to the Hugos or the Nebulas. Perhaps their profile was too slight to earn a nomination. Perhaps, given the close-knit nature of the books, people were waiting for the final volume to make an assessment. Per
haps everyone spent months reading them. Whatever the reason, I think that The Golden Age Trilogy will find a place in the genre’s history as one of the first true Science-Fiction books of the twenty-first century. If there’s a rehabilitation to be made, it starts here: While not perfect, this is the good stuff; this deserves to be read widely. For those who can handle it.

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