REVIEW: The Golden Age by John C. Wright
REVIEW SUMMARY: An engrossing tale that involves the reader on many levels.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In an interplanetary Utopian society, Phaethon is a rebel who must reclaim his identity that was lost via memory manipulation.
PROS: Fantastic imagination; intriguing plot; first-rate portrayal of far-future society; engrossing.
CONS: Too much futuristic jargon slows reading; slightly weaker middle.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent, thought-provoking debut novel.
The Golden Age by John C. Wright is an excellent debut novel featuring lots of intriguing and thought-provoking ideas.
The story takes place in an interplanetary Utopian society of the far future. Humans have achieved immortality by way of biological nanomachines and memory recordings. Every person perceives life’s events through a multi-tiered Matrix-like reality that they can individually control. Everyone has vast amounts of processing power at their disposal including a sense-filter that can be used to render undesirable people/events invisible (goodbye advertising!). People (really, their virtual “neuroforms”) may do anything as long as it does not harm others. In this decadent Utopia, men are watched by, and strongly depend upon, intelligent machines (“sophotecs”). Man has achieved the pinnacle of existence – they have reached The Golden Age. It is the will of the elite Peers that the status quo be maintained; that heroism, risk, adventure and speculation be stifled in order to preserve their comfortable Utopia.
Phaethon is a member of this Utopian society. As the story opens, rebellious Phaethon is chided by most citizens for an inexcusable atrocity he imposed on mankind. The problem is Phaethon alone does not know the nature of that deed. He soon discovers that he is missing memories from the last 250 years of his 3,000 year life. Even Helios, his gene template (a.k.a. father), and his wife, Daphne, are little help in regaining his memories. Phaethon’s search for his true identity takes the reader through scores of intriguing and well-imagined ideas.
My first impression of the book was mixed. The fascinating futuristic science presented here assaults the reader at dizzying speeds and invoking the sense of wonder present in most science fiction of the Golden Age. There are more ideas in one chapter than are present in many whole novels. But the way Wright does it is through massive amounts of jargon that just caused my reading to slow way down. It took quite a while to get familiar with those spikes on the road to comprehension. Nevertheless, it was these very passages that usually communicated the cool science which, in the end, won me over.
The appeal of this novel is on how many levels it involves the reader. On the one hand, you have a search-for-identity plot filled with intrigue. Who, exactly, erased Phaethon’s memories? Why? What is the heinous crime that he committed against Utopia? I found myself dying to know. The payoff met my expectations.
On a philosophical level, the story thought-provokingly deals with issues like identity, privacy and freedom. Since a person’s memories and identity can be voluntarily recorded (and shared on public storage channels!), complete understanding is nearly instantaneous. But, if one is not careful, privacy goes out the porthole.
There is a symbolic level as well. Now, I’m not a big fan(boy) of literary references or symbolism in stories. In many cases, that always seemed forced upon the reader. But Wright actually does a fine job handling it. At least, it didn’t annoy me as much as it usually does. And I’m sure there are loads of references that escaped me. Some examples? For one, there is the father/son relationship of Helios and Phaethon that is taken from Greek mythology (or is it Roman? Ugh!). The myth goes like this: Helios is the sun god and his son, Phaethon, burns the sky and the Earth by riding daddy’s chariot too high and too low. Ultimately, Zeus must step in and kill him with a lightning bolt (that’s so Zeus). Anyway, draw your own symbolic maps about Phaethon being the son of light (enlightened) and destroying the Earth, blah, blah, blah. Additionally, there are also many references to our history (the “Third Era” or thereabouts, as the book refers to it) and even some nods to science fiction authors. One minor character is named Emphyrio, the title of a Jack Vance novel.
On yet another level, the scientific ideas presented here are astounding: every person is brain-recorded onto a diamond crystal located at the center of the planet; brain modifications are made to control emotions and improve memory; nanotechnology connects each person to a vast interplanetary super-computer network and allows them to experience and share real and virtual events; terraforming is trivial; and Jupiter has been converted into the galaxy’s second sun. Wright is not drawing a blank on cool ideas.
Except for the jargon-a-thons, the writing style was pleasant enough. The middle seemed slightly weaker than the ends. There’s not a whole lot of action or locales, but the dialogues are engrossing and well though out. The ending is a cliffhanger.
Surprisingly, The Golden Age is Wright’s debut novel. Originally planned as a two-book story, it has since been expanded to a trilogy (in order: The Phoenix Exultant and The Golden Transcendence). I look forward to reading the next installment.
Filed under: Book Review
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