Bewildering Stories

John C. Wright, The Golden Age

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

The Golden Age
Author: John C. Wright
Publisher: Tor, 2002
Hardcover: $24.95
Length: 336 pp.
ISBN: 0-312-84870-6
Virtual reality has been around in fiction for a long time. The earliest forms of it were dreams or hallucinations: Oz and Wonderland and Xanadu and others, all fantastic worlds that the protagonists interacted with but did not control. Later, in the Information Age, we had the cyberpunk masters, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and others of their ilk, whose heroes, wish-fulfillment alter egos of the keyboard jockey generation, wielded god-like powers over their bit-patterned realms and could to some extent master their external environment.

John C. Wright’s trilogy, beginning with The Golden Age, takes that progression one step further. Now intelligence in its myriad forms controls its own realities completely, both external and internal. It is not only his outer world that man may tailor to his satisfaction now. Man may alter his inner world — his mind, his memories, and his psyche — entirely to his personal wishes. He may become a partial of himself, a mannequin, a mass-mind, a bodiless construct or many other neuroforms. The power that man extended over his external world in previous ages has at last also become the power that man extends over himself, in Wright’s fantastic story.

Wright’s far future envisions a Golden Age where humanity seems at the pinnacle of its prosperity and glory. True death as we know it is gone; the manorial system allows humans to spin many copies of themselves that embody their full or partial consciousness, while their actual bodies rest safely under constant medical care and protection. The reality they perceive is many-layered, augmented or sensory-filtered at whim, and threaded everywhere with artificial intelligence. Some of these artificial intelligences are external, such as the Sopotechs; others are internal, representing the various modifications that humanity has chosen to make to its base neuroforms. Perceived reality is more fantastic and intense and glorious than normal human senses could ever make it, and as changeable as the wish of its creators, because supposedly nothing nothing except violence against another is, it seems, prohibited in this permissive and luxurious world.

Many authors would be content to explore no more than these fertile grounds, but Wright’s ambitious story takes on much more. On the threshold of this seeming Utopia we meet a strange and restless man: Phaethon of the elite Radamanthus House. Phaethon finds himself, as our story opens, unable to share whole-heartedly in the joyful festivities of the coming Millennial Celebration. Two unexpected encounters reveal to him that he is the victim of a great conspiracy: more than two centuries of his own memories have been wrested from him, apparently by his own choice. Strangers react with inexplicable affection or hostility; even his wife, who seems strangely changed, seems charged with encumbering his attempt to regain his memories.

In fact, as Phaethon probes the mystery of his damaged self, he finds that the greatest imaginable punishment, utter excommunication from humanity, will be inflicted upon him if he decides to re-open his memories. There, like Pandora’s Box, lies his own extracted self and could any man resist opening the lid? For with its sorrows Hope, too, lies in captivity. And hope is something, like the plagues and wars of ancient eras, that Phaethon’s immortal Golden Age seems to have forgotten.

Wright combines the elegance and descriptive lushness of a Jack Vance fantasy with his mediations on the nature of humanity and its goals in an imagined far future. If the story has a weak point, it is, I suppose, in how all these philosophical viewpoints are represented in and as actual characters. Some of the characters, though finely drawn, read almost as mouthpieces, and can prose on to the point of exasperated impatience on the part of the reader. Understanding and believing their purported motivations can be a little challenging at times.

Such minor flaws really don’t matter much though. This is a fantastic and highly ambitious story that manages to combine mystery, action, philosophy, imagination and eerie descriptive prose in 336 fast-flipping pages. I can’t wait to pick up the rest of the trilogy. Give the generic elves, flippant thieves, cranky wizards, and hotshot space adventurers cranked out by many writers in the field a rest and pick up something unusual and different. You won’t be sorry!

P. S. Trivia alert! What is the significance of the name of the main character, Phaethon Radamanthus? I won’t explain the significance of his first name because the author does so himself in the story.

The last name, however, could use some explication for the ordinary reader. Radamanthus was the name of one of the three judges of the Underworld (the other two being Minos and Aeacus). In Virgil’s tale, Aeneas, the Roman hero, follows a road into the Underworld that reaches a crossroad. To the left the quaking hero hears groans and the clanking of chains and other sounds of pain and misery. He is told that the sinister region is ruled by Radamanthus, Judge of the Underworld, who thoroughly punishes the wicked for their evil.

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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