The Golden Age: A Romance of the Far Future by John C. Wright
List Price: $24.95
Hardcover: 336 pages (April 2002)
Publisher: Tor; ISBN: 0312848706
Review by Ernest Lilley

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The Golden Age is thought provoking, readable, and engaging, in short it's everything Science Fiction aspires to be. John Wright's debut novel has created a well conceived post-human future, bound himself by reasonable limitations, and set us off on a great adventure with his tragic hero Phaeton...even though we never really leave Earth.

The title of the Golden Age is undoubtedly a sly double entendre. The story takes place during a far future golden age, or as they refer to it, "The Golden Oecumene", and it's style and story owe much to the classic Science Fiction of the first half of the Twentieth Century (oh, how I love talking about the 1900s like it was long ago and far away). It's the lone dreamer against the Star Council sort of story that was so popular both in and out of the genre in the thirties and forties.

Which is not to say it's stylistically dated. Far from it. One of the things I enjoyed most was the author's awareness of the different possible futures already played out in Science Fiction. Some of these appear as history, some as possibility. John Wright is a clever guy, and The Golden Age is a clever, thoughtful, and intriguing book.

Off in his far future, on the eve of a millennial celebration, Phaeton, our hero, is attending the gala masquerade. Nobody is actually present at the expansive celebration, but the line between the virtual and real has long since been blurred to become the distinction that is no distinction. Except for those that choose to live without sensory filters or augments. There's room for all in this future, a fact driven home by the list of Dramatis Persona at the beginning, broken up for us by neurological form. There are modified humans, like Phaeton and his sire Helios, Artificial Intelligences, or Sophonts, like Phaeton's house daemon Rhadamanthas, who insists on appearing as some sort of Penguin variant. There are frozen post-human intelligences downloaded into the cybermatirices on Neptune, and there are even unmodified humans that shun all augment and mod.

But back to the story. Phaeton is out for a stroll. Bored by the parties, though he can't fathom why, he encounters a curmudgeonly artist in a garden who, mistaking Phaeton Prime for some masquerading fellow of tasteless jest, upbraids him for appearing thus. Phaeton has no idea what the man is on about. He seems to have a real antipathy for Phaeton, or whatever he's done but our boy can't for the life of him think of anything he's done in all his centuries of existence that would earn him such enmity.

And we arrive at the crux of the story.

Phaeton soon discovers that he had voluntarily agreed to have his mind wiped of certain events. More than that, he learns that all of humanity (and others) had their minds scrubbed clean as well. His memories are all locked up in a box, and should he turn the key to open it, he will be cut off from all civilization and tossed out on his arse.

Though he remembers himself to be one of the wealthiest men alive, it turns out that he's actually broke, living on his father's money. Should he choose to undo the brain drain, it all goes away, and not just for him, but for his wife, whom he loves.

What could he have done that would cause such a commotion? He remembers his failed attempt to turn Saturn into a small star, but that ended amiably enough. The inscription on his memory vault speaks of "Sorrow, great sorrow, and deeds of renown without peer..." A lure guaranteed to draw such a man onwards and hang the expense. The better part of the book is spent sleuthing around trying to determine the answer without breaching the agreement, not so much because he's afraid to lose all, but because whatever dream he dared dream might yet be saved if he can only figure out what's going on.

Unsurprisingly, others are not happy about this attempt.

The Horatorium, a Star Council sort of body common to early SF, is all set to lock mankind into its current state of perfection, for its own good. There's a great bit of debate about this which shows the authors awareness of possible futures, and much concern is voiced about the cooling of the sun some billenia hence. I particularly liked the concern voiced by one member of the Horatorium that a humanity frozen at this idle peak would be ill suited to face the challenge of migrating the whole population to warmer climes when the sun went out. A dissenting voice? Oh, no, we can certainly instill those traits back into the population when we want them.

Bit by bit Phaeton learns of the intrigues that surround him. The horrible truth about the woman he loves. About his father, whom he may have killed in his grand scheme...but only if the restored version loses his court battle to be declared himself. The cast of supporting characters are amusing, none more so than his manor house intelligence Rhadamanthus, who remembers all, but is bound by the agreement to tell nothing. He's a handy foil though, and stubby penguin wings flapping a hypersonic velocities (or whatever the tasteful aesthetics and physics of the scene require) he's a delight to have around.

Daphne, Phaeton's artist-gamer wife, moves offstage a bit too soon, for the impact that she has on the main character. Helion, his sire, figures more prominently in the story...as one of the members of the Horatorium, he knows what has been forgotten, and loving both his son and his civilization, is torn between the two. Or counting his wealth, which will pass to his heir if he's determined not to be the real McCoy...torn by a trio of torments.

The whole thing is a sleuthing story, and along the way we get to see a well realized future, with the solar system tamed, the stars beyond our grasp, and man on the verge of settling down for a long winters nap...in the golden age.

If you've come this far, there's something I should tell you. Something I only discovered when I turned the last page...but I don't think it's really a spoiler. I mean, someone's bound to squeal.

To my horror, when I looked at the last page, I saw these words scrawled halfway down.

Here ends Volume I, To be concluded in Volume II... 

Well, at least I have that to look forward too.

2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu