John C. Wright’s The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant
and The Golden Transcendence
book review by Jörn Grote
Title: The Golden Age
Published: April 2002
Publisher: Tor books
hardback, 304 pp.
Title: The Phoenix Exultant
Published: May 2003
Publisher: Tor books.
hardback, 304 pp.
Title: The Golden
Published: November 2003
Publisher: Tor books.
hardback, 352 pp.
Before I begin I must say that the Golden Age trilogy by John C. Wright is some of the finest SF I read in a long time. Not that much of the rest I read is bad; more that the things I like most are stories with a very grand scope: think of Diaspora by Greg Egan or Aristoi by Walter John Williams. The books by Wright deliver all I’m looking for and much more.
The story begins with the main character’s discovering that something happened in his past he can’t remember. But that’s not something unheard of, since he lives in the Golden Ages, a time of wealth and scientific advances unheard of in history. With the help of their technology and the help of the sophotechs, artificial intelligences of any magnitude, humanity has achieved immortality, can bend matter and mind to their will and have even created atoms that can build nearly indestructible structures. Even the poorest people of this age are wealthier than any human of your age, and all seems quite nice.
But when Phaeton, our hero, tries to regain his memories, many of his assumptions about his age, his society, the Golden Oecumene and himself are turned upside down. In his past he had tried to build a starship, something widely feared, because his goal to build colonies on other worlds could one day threaten the peace of the Golden Oecumene.
At the end of book one, titled like the trilogy itself The Golden Age, he has regained his memories but is exiled from the Oecumene, mortal and vulnerable and without the aid of much of his former friends. Throughout book two, he tries to regain control of The Phoenix Exultant, the ship he has built to leave for the stars. In the third and final book, The Golden Transcendence, the long-guessed hidden enemy of the Golden Oecumene is revealed, and now Phaeton must not only fight for himself but also for the future of the people who have exiled him.
There are many things to like about the books, firstly the sometimes overwhelming use of speculative technology, pseudomatter projectors, sense filters that allow the user to regulate all data input, and many more. The reader will also encounter many layers of reality, since reality is mostly the picture your mind forms of the input it gets through its senses, and since that is all prone to manipulation. Then there are the different mind types, from mass minds to the intuitive minds of the warlocks and others.
Wright has created a complex future, that even has its own classification system for the history of mankind since the dawn of time. Very often the author does small but entertaining infodumps about certain aspects of his future, and the readers asks himself how many more details will follow. But while such detail can be entertaining, it would fail without a good story to hold it all together. And that story is as gripping as Wright’s depiction of the future.
Also Wright is a master of the plot twist: with every step the hero takes, he and the reader gain new and unexpected insights on seemingly clear matters. As an example, the Silent Oecumene, the hidden enemy. When you think you know all about them, book three reveals why they are the enemy, and the reasons are logical and yet unforeseen.
Book three also takes a heavy dive into philosophy and requires the reader sometimes to think hard. And if you believe the books are only about a conflict between two human groups, you will find very soon that the scope of the books is much grander. Even if the future depicted in this books seem very far away, the real conflict of the books lies much farther ahead, and plays out until the end of the universe.
So, are there negative things to say about the books? Sure, there always will be, nothing is perfect. I never really warmed up to the main character: he is arrogant, pompous and very sure of himself, a perfect example of a human being. But mostly the books are perfect for me, they have great world building, a big scope, action, philosophy, likable characters like Phaeton's wife, and a brilliant ending. Wright has even managed to write some very humorous scenes in book two and three, something I was sure he wasn’t capable of. For his first books to be as good, the only question remains how will he be able to follow that.
Copyright © 2004 by Jörn Grote