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The Phoenix Exultant and The Golden Transcendence, by John C. Wright

How does a promising science fiction author continue to deliver after his first publication wows many with its scale and imagination? If the author is John C. Wright, he does it by turning the conclusion of his story into two more volumes, and crams each with more of what made the first so captivating. At the conclusion of The Golden Age (reviewed here), the reader is told the tale will be concluded in a forthcoming book—but somewhere along the way, the decision was made to split the remainder of the “Golden Age” story into two volumes. I think that was a good decision; and unlike most middle stories of a trilogy, The Phoenix Exultant shines on its own.

As we return to the story, Phaethon has been banished from his society, which also means getting cut off from the computer-minds that assist many, if not most, sentient life forms. How will he handle such a brutal punishment? Is there any way for Phaethon to solve the mysteries he was beginning to unravel in the first story? Unlike The Golden Age, which rushed the reader hither and yon to acquaint her with the diverse extant neuroforms as well as individual characters, The Phoenix Exultant focuses much more on Phaethon, and on action. But Phaethon is not just an über-augmented Macgyver type; his challenges include unraveling the webs of others’ actions and intentions, as well as survival in an environment where he is an outcast and unable to use much of the technology to which he’s become accustomed.

Toward the end of The Phoenix Exultant, the tone of the story shifts toward the female lead’s perspective – and Daphne, Phaethon’s wife, is not originally of the controlled, formal Silver-Gray Manorial school, but the highly emotional Red Manorial. Concomitantly the narrative takes on much more of an operatic feel for the unfolding romantic and ongoing space opera storylines. The stylistic shift may be jarring, particularly to those who aren’t paying a lot of attention, but Wright pulls it off smashingly. He also explores deep philosophical questions amongst the lighter notes, typically in verbal exchanges between characters. One particularly thought-provoking exchange between Phaethon and Ironjoy, a boss among a group of outcasts, delves briefly but deeply into the nature of selfhood (Ironjoy is the first speaker):

“... I have seen my life through other’s [sic] eyes and recoiled in disgust ...” ....
“You could trifle with your mind, using activators and redactors from your own thought-shop, and put yourself back in to the state of mind you were in before the Curia forced you to experience your victims’ lives.”
“Is this some sort of test or quiz? You know I shall not do that.”
“Why not?”
Ironjoy started to turn away, but then stopped, turned, and answered the question. “If I were now as I was then, I would gladly change my self to remain as I was then; but I am now as I am now. The me that I am now has no desire to be any other me. Isn’t that the fundamental nature of the self?” (pp. 268-9)
While not as original as the book that introduced Wright’s weird, wild worlds and characters – and thankfully significantly lighter on typographical and similar errors – The Phoenix Exultant is nonetheless its equal in other ways. It is a more than adquate bridge between the opening and closing volumes in a singular series. And while The Golden Transcendence does indeed wrap up the major storylines in satisfactory fashion, it nonetheless will leave fans of the series craving more.

As two epic events – one known and widely anticipated, the other largely unknown and thus unexpected – draw near, Phaethon is still struggling with memory loss and an urgent need to identify who his enemies really are. Unlikely allies could be enemies, and sometimes seem to be; and the reverse is also true. Wright draws on his well-developed characters and their complex relationships to keep the suspense going even as he purports to reveal all. Even more cerebral than the opening volume, The Golden Transcendence focuses on large issues including the nature of rationality, and personhood. The “Daphne touch” described above reappears as well, and perhaps to better effect for readers accustomed to it from the middle volume. Here it provides welcome relief from a good deal of philosophizing, which is interesting in its own right but can become annoying when the reader just wants to know who did it already. I readily admit to being one of those readers; while I can enjoy exploring deep ideas, and fast-paced action, they don’t blend very well for me and I chose to focus on the action in my first reading of the books.

In all honesty, it might not be very just to review Wright’s trilogy after only one reading – his characters and settings are so richly textured that perhaps only one of his Sophotechs or Compositions (group minds) could keep track of all the interesting ideas and asides in addition to the main story’s convolutions. Many are, necessarily, left dangling; some are unexpectedly resolved. And while the trilogy was recommended to me in part because of its pro-freedom flavor, that message remained an undercurrent rather than pushing aside action or characterization for the sake of propagandizing. Wright does not present a simplistic, clear world view that could be inferred as representing his own; ideas are considered and explored. Further, he often structures pro-freedom themes so subtly that they can easily be passed over. I wonder how many readers took in the following bit without realizing that, with a couple of word substitutions (viz., “state” for “Earthmind” and “bureaucrats” for “machines”), it neatly encapsulates much of the current human condition:

“My daughter is alive; therefore, she must grow; that growth produces uncertainty, change, instability, and danger; therefore the Earthmind and her machines outmaneuver us, thwart us, hinder us, (legally! oh, ever so very legally!) and act in every way to stop our growth, which stops our life. And then they wonder why we grieve.” (The Phoenix Exultant, p. 91)
John C. Wright’s Golden Age trilogy is a rare series that sustains interest in the characters and action across each volume. Each book stands well on its own – which is not to say the latter two can be understood without reading the predecessors – while also staying true to the overarching tale. For readers willing to put in some cognitive effort, Wright amply rewards with a truly epic, hard sci-fi space opera that offers many ideas worth pondering, and a series that can be enjoyed repeatedly.

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