John C. Wright

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"The Golden Age: A Romance of the Far Future"

(Reviewed by Greg West JUN 01, 2004)

In many ways epic space opera is the illegitimate love-child of the so-called Golden Age of science fiction of the first decades of the 20th century. Born between the grainy pages of the pulp magazines of the nineteen thirties and forties (at about the moment Superman was born), its intended audience was a handful of geeky teenage boys with grandiose dreams of technological derring-do.

Read an interviewYou might say the genre's father was the traditional adventure yarn of Robert Louis Stevenson or Arthur Conan Doyle, western shoot-em-ups and tales of piracy on the high seas. If so, then its mother was invention itself. It may seem quaint from the perspective of the 21st century, but the early 20th century was a period of heady technological change; industrious city boys could build radios in their rooms from a few simple components. Steeped in invention, these kids were both naive and audacious enough to dream of silver spaceships sailing amid the planets and stars, even if their parents thought it idle rubbish and possibly somewhat corrupting.

So the pulp magazine was born with lurid cover illustrations featuring scantily clad damsels in the clutches of bug-eyed monsters. As far as I know there were no novels with such covers. I believe the term "science fiction" didn't exist in book publishing until the nineteen forties or fifties. The nearest thing available were the novels of Verne and Wells which were called scientific romances, and it never occurred to anyone to assign the cautionary tales of Orwell and his ilk to a separate genre, much less a literary ghetto.

The acne-scarred face of epic space opera is still with us. Like many lingering children, it refuses to grow up and won't move out. Like Rock'n'Roll, it perpetually renews itself, abandoning pretense and hard-earned sophistication in favor of simpler, more primitive pleasures. (It's easy to dance to.) To this day the silver spaceship and its lantern-jawed captain is the very model of sci-fi in the popular imagination. This circumstance can present a problem for the jaded babyboomer in search of a substantial read. That is, the literary standards of space opera aren't consistently high. Much of it reads as if it were written by novices with no great command of the English language. I am often drawn to the Big Ideas of these attempts; yet find myself distracted by the pedestrian quality of the prose. Someone needs to teach these guys how not to use adverbs. Yes, my children, language matters. You can't pair words like "resounding blank" because blanks don't resound. This is an actual example I tripped over in a recent novel, which I won't name, and couldn't finish. What a pity, I say. What a snob, you reply. Let's step outside, you mouth-breathing cretin.

But wait. The situation isn't hopeless. Occasionally luck and dogged tenacity will lead me to a jewel among the cow paddies. It helps the search when the cover illustration does not feature a hypertrophic hero in a tank-like space suit brandishing an assault weapon the size of a Humvee transmission. One such is the paperback edition of The Golden Age by John C. Wright. The cover illustration is subtle and more symbolic than literal. It seemed promising. Dare I look inside?

(By the way, Tor Books, why is the name of the jacket designer nowhere in evidence? Is he/she a migrant worker? Or lost to the FBI witness protection plan?)

At once the reader is somewhat overwhelmed by the strange complexity he faces. He finds himself ten thousand years in the future where even the familiar hides strangeness beneath. The author doesn't explain anything, doesn't define the unfamiliar terms bandied about. If he did, the novel would be the size of an encyclopedia and about as entertaining. No, Wright simply tells his story from the point of view his troubled protagonist and expects you to keep up. In this sense, reading is not a passive activity; it's collaboration between reader and writer. To my mind this is one of the singular virtues of good science fiction; you find yourself in a place you don't understand, and the only way to comprehend is through virtual experience, like a baby learning to walk. It is essential to be a curious reader, willing to learn, yet the author must make it worth your while. Otherwise, you both lose.

Right out of the gate Wright sparks my curiosity with the naming of his protagonist. In myth, Phaethon is the bastard son of Apollo, god of the sun.

Phaethon straight-wires Apollo's sun chariot but finds that he is not godlike enough to control the fiery steeds. Now out of control, the wayward sun blisters some areas of the earth and freezes others. In desperation his deadbeat dad blasts him from the chariot thereby saving the world from further damage, but killing Phaethon. I immediately wondered if Wright had named his protagonist with the Phaethon myth in mind. Indeed, it turned out to be a very thoughtful choice, but for reasons I could never have guessed. This pleases me a lot.

Phaethon lives in the age of the Golden Oecumene. Now there's an interesting word. It's not in my dictionary, yet it seems to derive from the Greek word "oikoumenikos" from which the word "ecumenical" derives. It's a word that contains its own arrogance for it implies a world-wide or universal community. Not an empire, but a unification or consensus. The Golden Oecumene spans the entire solar system where war and even murder are not only nonexistent, but unthinkable. A cover blurb attributed to Paul Levinson compares it to Coleridge's Xanadu, a paradise in which no one ever need die or suffer from want. It's worth mentioning that Xanadu is also a dream palace.

Indeed much about Phaethon's life is dreamlike and illusory, but in much too complex a way to sort out here. (Besides, that would ruin your fun.) But there is a core of solid reality to it, all rooted in fantastic technologies and inhabited by "neuroforms" (all basically/somewhat human) which range from the sublime to the ridiculous. And though humanity has radically altered itself, they must still struggle with prosaic political issues. When Phaethon learns that centuries of memory have been "redacted" from his mind, the plot rapidly thickens. What's more, he learns that his former self had agreed to the redaction. Though those memories are safely stored away, he learns that if he accesses them he will have violated an agreement which will result in his exile from the Golden Oecumene. This, of course, means no more immortality for Phaethon.

Phaethon, a decent enough fellow by all appearances, cannot imagine what he might have done to deserve such a fate. Piece by piece he begins to gain some vague understanding of his former crimes, all without opening the iconic box that contains his memories. He learns that he once advocated escaping the solar system to colonize the stars, which is what put him at conflict with a very conservative establishment. At times the novel echoes with the trail of Galileo, yet the Oecumene is not run by a bunch of know-nothing fuddy duddies in church robes. They possess minds whose powers are almost godlike. Their motives are not presented as evil. Their disagreements seem sincere and legitimate.

Wright wrestles with a lot of tangled moral and philosophical questions here, some of them almost metaphysical in nature. We find questions about identity, for example. Phaethon's father Helion (one consonant away from the name of another sun god, Helios) is killed while attempting to modify the sun in order extend its lifetime. An hour later Helion's backup copy is awoken, identical to the original except for that lost hour when a solar flare interrupted lines of communication. The catch is, in Helion Prime's last second of life he seemed to experience some sort of epiphany that might have changed his character in a fundamental way. Therefore is Helion Secondus not the same man as Helion Prime? And is Helion therefore to be declared legally dead? And what shall be the legal status of Helion Secundus? If the original is declared dead then Helion Secundus will be known as Helion Relic — not such a good thing.

This and larger Stapeldonain questions concerning mankind's long-term destiny goes into the stew. Or more aptly, I like to think of Wright's novel as a wonderfully complex mobile, one that contains moving parts within moving parts, as baroque as a Rub Goldberg machine but more elegantly constructed. It rings of Asimov's best mental puzzles and incorporates the latest in thinking about the future of cybernetics a la Greg Egan and William Gibson. Wright seems to have done his homework by osmosis, by absorbing the grandest themes from classical mythology and weaving them naturally into a science-fictional tapestry. I don't know anything about the guy, but if he's young and this good (and survives his own brilliance), he could find himself standing alongside the likes of Gregory Benford and company. (With me there shining his shoes.)

Having said all this there's one more thing you need to know. I've grown fond of novels that put me inside the heads of its characters, stories that tell themselves from the inside out. But The Golden Age isn't that kind of novel. Its themes are too grand, too sprawling for that. Yes, we see the world through Phaethon's eyes, yet this is not a psychological meditation. We are challenged to question the nature of awareness and individuality, but by a more extroverted and mythical approach. The point that many storytellers seem to miss is that myth does not employ metaphor, it is metaphor. This is a distinction Wright seems to grasp without effort.

And best of all, mouseketeers, he knows how to write. He doesn't try to dazzle with florid descriptions stringing along every adverb in the dictionary.

Though he does not aspire to poetry he does know how to tell us what he sees, plus the extent and depth of linguistic invention on display is always intelligent, sometimes amusing, and often rather dazzling. One gets the impression he's not showing off as much as simply having a great time tinkering with the innards of the English language. His nomenclature alone is enough to send you scrambling for the dictionary wondering if "protonothary" is an extant word or an invention. His world is peopled by such entities as "cerebelline neuroforms" and "cortial-thalamically integrated neurofoms" otherwise knows simply as "invariants." The term "neuroform" simply refers to the way in which an entity's nervous system has been altered from the human baseline. Phaethon himself is a "biochemical self-aware entity;" in other words, a human being with a flesh and blood body tucked safely away at Rhadamanth Manor. And yet (if I may be permitted to pick a nit or two) amid all this lexical virtuosity my reader's eye kept finding punctuation marks that seemed somewhat misplaced, like unattended toddlers adrift in a department store. For instance, read this: "In this time of joy, he was not at ease with himself; and did not know why." Now I ask you, what's that semicolon doing there? You reply, oh get over it you punctilious twit.

Though the editor may have nodded off a time or two, this novel is without doubt space opera for adults. Once, long ago, someone described science fiction as the thinking man's literature. The Golden Age could very well stand as an example of that claim. This is what epic space opera could have grown up to be.

The book ends with Phaethon following in the contrail of yet another mythic figure, that of poor Icarus who, shorn of artificial wings and innate ambition, tumbles helplessly from the wide open sky. I'm not being literal, mind you, but it's pretty darn close. Just as Phaethon reaches his personal nadir he picks himself up like an alcoholic who realizes there is nowhere left to go but up. I bought the book knowing there was a sequel, but now I realize with pleasure that The Phoenix Exultant will not be a mere addendum, but the extension of an arc that rises and falls, and may yet rise again. I now look forward to learning how Phaethon saves himself from the wages of his own hubris and a slow death in exile. Good stuff.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 83 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

The Golden Age Series:

Chronicles of Everness:

Chaos Trilogy:

Other:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

John C.WrightJohn C. Wright was born in 1961 and grew up in southern California. He is a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis, home of the "Great Books Program." In 1987, he graduated from the College of William and Mary School of Law and was admitted to the practice of law in three jurisdictions (New York in 1989, Maryland in 1990 and Washington D.C. in 1994). His law practice was unsuccessful enough to drive him into bankruptcy soon thereafter. He also tried a stint as a newspaperman for the St. Mary's Today. He later found employment as a Technical Writer, which allowed him more time to write fiction.

He lives in Virginia with his wife, author L. Jagi Lamplighter and their three children.

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