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The Golden Age, by John C. Wright

I don’t think I have ever been simultaneously so awed and infuriated by a book. The Golden Age, John C. Wright’s first novel, is an audacious, stylish recasting of myth and human heroism flung into the far future. Symbolism runs deep and technological neologisms subtly provide clues as to their origins. For an intelligent reader, and/or one willing to work to meet Wright halfway, the universe he creates is wonderfully complex and tightly woven. The story, while perhaps slow to start for some, is an epic space opera sprinkled with considerations of philosophical themes. And yet it is so littered with errors of varying sorts that I lost count of the times I sighed in exasperation. From misspelled names that unnecessarily distract—particularly unwelcome in a book as sprawling and requiring of attention as this—to typographical errors that spell-checkers invariably miss but careful human readers should not, to missing words and possibly inconsistent labels, The Golden Age—in its hardcover edition, at least—is an editorial mess.

However, one should take note that I reported “sighing in exasperation” above, not “throwing the book across the room” or “giving up in frustration”. I was so enamored by the splendor of Wright’s creation that my highly critical teacher-editor’s mind was reduced as I read to sulkily identifying “yet another error” while the rest of my nonaugmented neuroform gloried in a tale spun so well.

The Golden Age is the first of three books that take the reader along with Phaethon of Rhadamanth House, of the Silver-Gray Manorial School, as he learns that his memories have been severely altered, and over the course of regaining them must deal with several mysteries regarding his actions—that led to the mind-wipe—as well as those of his friends and enemies. That would be easier if he could tell who was which. While in The Golden Age Phaethon’s adventures are just beginning, the story is nonetheless compelling for readers willing to indulge in less action and more character development and context setting.

Wright’s world is suffused with technological marvels, from variously augmented humans to mass-mind compositions (that require awkward “he-they” and “I-we” constructions) to massively intelligent yet somewhat indulgent self-aware machine minds; immortality is commonplace in many circles; and public property does not exist. Indeed, one of the most intriguing elements of Wright’s world is its absolutist stance on intellectual property. Others include: the issue of how different a copy must be from its “prime” before it is granted its own personhood; and the consequences of awakening lesser minds to self-awareness. It’s clear that Wright is sympathetic to the fundamentals of the freedom philosophy, yet he does not tip his hand to his views on certain particulars. Instead, the reader is treated to occasional observations that reward one's attention, such as this exchange between a machine mind, Rhadamanthus, and Phaethon, with Rhadamanthus speaking first:

“While life continues, experimentation and evolution must also. The pain and risk of failure cannot be eliminated. The most we can do is maximize human freedom, so that no man is forced to pay for another man’s mistakes, so that the pain of failure falls only on he who risks it. And you do not know which ways of life lead nowhere. Even we Sophotechs [self-aware machine minds] do not know where all paths lead.”
“How benevolent of you! We will always be free to be stupid.”
“Cherish that freedom, young master; it is basic to all others.” (p. 115)

Any book as ambitious as The Golden Age inevitably stumbles in certain places for differing types of readers along its way. The high style of Wright’s prose, intended to suffuse the narrative with the manorial school perspective in play at the time and the larger-than-life space-opera feel, can probably seem overblown to those who prefer leaner writing styles. The jargon can seem impenetrably dense, particularly for those not well versed in the meanings of Latin and Greek roots; reading the preliminary material offers some assistance and should not be considered optional. And again, as The Golden Age lays out the nature of the universe and the players within, and sets the stage for Phaethon’s adventures, it is the lightest on action of the three books. But if one is willing to allow Wright some latitude, and invest some extra attention into reading, one should be well rewarded. At the close of The Golden Age, realizing that at least one more volume would have to be read to find out where Phaethon’s mysteries lead him, I did not feel tricked, or a victim of a crass marketing ploy; I just wanted to get my hands on the next volume. Fortunately for me, it was at the ready. But to say more would be getting ahead of myself.

The Golden Age is a dense yet accessible story that almost certainly improves with a second reading. Despite my omnipresent time crunch, particularly when it comes to reading, I will make time to read it again soon—even though I know I’ll be sighing in exasperation again at all the editorial cockups. I cannot conceive of higher praise that I could offer.

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More by John C. Wright: The Phoenix Exultant (volume 2 in the Golden Age trilogy); The Golden Transcendence (volume 3); The Last Guardian of Everness; Mists of Everness; Orphans of Chaos; Fugitives of Chaos; and Titans of Chaos (preorder—release date 4/17/07).