Review of John C. Wright’s
“The Golden Age” (vol. 1), “The
Phoenix Exultant” (vol. 2) and “The Golden Transcendence”
Science fiction stories often take place in the
future—sometimes the very far future, as in the case of Mr. Wright’s
excellent trilogy—but the issues involved and the attitudes of the
characters portrayed are inevitably those of concern to people alive
at the time of the author’s writing. Fiction serves as a tool both
to distance the reader from these issues and to highlight them
through inflation, elaboration and dramatization. Questions that are
only of concern today to philosophers and dreamers become crucial,
life-or-death matters to the characters in these stories.
If you have not yet read Mr. Wright’s “Golden Age”
trilogy, then you have an aesthetic and intellectual feast ahead of
you: go eat it now! You will almost certainly enjoy the experience.
And after finishing all three books, you will not be disturbed by
the SPOILERS NEAR THE END OF THIS REVIEW (warning will be given
again before they appear).
These books are that most rare combination of
riveting story-telling and deep thinking on issues of personal
identity, cultural diversity, economics, politics, artificial
intelligence and evolution, all served up in polished prose of
unusually elegant style and wit. Mr. Wright has clearly pondered
these matters deeply. The world he constructs is detailed,
self-consistent, and in many ways, extremely attractive.
“The Golden Age” follows the story of Phaethon
(full name: Phaethon Prime of Rhadamanth), a man living in a polity
called the Golden Oecumene circa 500,000 C.E. Phaethon is the legal
heir of his sire, Helion (full name: Helion Relic of Rhadamanth),
who designed his offspring according to his own aims. In this
far-future era, there is no messy, hit-or-miss biological
reproduction by the genetic lottery of the past; all babies are
The Golden Oecumene comprises the volume of the
solar system from the sun to Saturn. From Neptune out into the
Kuiper belt lies the lawless realm of the Cold Dukes. The boundary
between these areas of space is technological, not legal or
physical, rather as on Earth in earlier centuries the Law of the Sea
was said to extend as far as a ship’s cannon could fire. In the
Golden Age, the technological boundary limit is the practical range
of the immortality system. This is not the first, highly localized
form of physical immortality, but the much broader Second
Immortality, which was invented by Orpheus Myriad Avernus, who holds
proprietary control of it. The Second Immortality system performs
real-time back-ups of all enrolled minds within its purview. If the
body inhabited by a mind were to be destroyed, the mind back-up
would immediately be reinstantiated on a new bodily platform. Within
the Golden Oecumene, physical immortality is easily available;
outside it, in the dark realm of the Neptunian Cold Dukes and
beyond, one lives only as long as one can find the resources to
maintain life—and to stave off the attacks of others.
A variety of persons, or intelligences, inhabit the
Golden Oecumene, and are divided into two main groups: biochemical
self-aware entities, and electrophotonic self-aware entities. In
general terms, we can think of the former group as enhanced humans
and the latter as artificial intelligence, or as Mr. Wright labels
them, sophotechs. The biochemical self-aware entities (enhanced
humans) are further classified according to their neuroforms, or
mental architectures. Each neuroform features its own style of
thinking and specialization. These range from base neuroforms like
Phaethon, an engineer; to alternative organization neuroforms (also
called Warlocks) like Ao Aoen, the master-dreamer; to cortical-thalamically
integrated neuroforms (also called Invariants) like Kes Sennec, the
logician; to cerebelline neuroforms like Wheel-of-Life, the
ecological mathematician; to the mass-mind compositions, like the
Eleemosynary Composition, which has absorbed many individual minds
into a single group-consciousness.
All of these persons live in the physical world,
but their enhanced neural architectures feature the ability to
perceive the world according to their own chosen sense filters. This
ability is a crucial part of the Golden Age storyline. People of
various neuroforms affiliate according to the particular style of
sense filtering they prefer. These styles are termed schools, just
as we would speak of a school of art, like the Impressionist or the
Cubist. For example, imagine a common scene, such as a city street
with people strolling along. Then think of how an Impressionist
artist like Monet might paint this scene. Now imagine how
differently a Cubist like Picasso would paint the same scene. In the
same way, each school filters the senses of its members so that they
perceive according to the ethos of that school.
Phaethon is a member of the Silver-Gray Manorial
School, which impresses a sense filtering ethos using the imagery
and speech patterns of Victorian England. The Silver-Gray School was
founded by Phaethon’s sire, Helion, but it is run by the sophotech
named Rhadamanthus who is therefore called the school’s manor-house.
The exceptions to this sense filtering are the
Invariants, who are severely logical and realistic—imagine Star
Trek’s Mr. Spock among the Logical Positivists of the Vienna
Circle—and the sophotechs, whose artificial intelligence far
surpasses the mind-power of even the most enhanced human neuroform.
Some sophotechs work as the core systems of the various schools,
while others operate individually or in clusters, managing the
mundane operations of the economy of the Golden Oecumene,
facilitating its social events, and conducting its scientific and
mathematical research. The sophotechs are as ethical as they are
powerful, and they are devoted to a policy of non-interference with
human autonomy. They help the human neuroforms as advisors and aids,
but they will not command or manipulate them.
The Golden Oecumene has no real government. It has
a legal system of sophotech judges, and a popular assembly called
the College of Hortators. The College debates issues and makes
decrees that are only enforced by moral suasion. This turns out to
be as effective as any legislation in an earlier age, because to
flout a decree of the College of Hortators is to risk being censured
and shunned. Shunning is an age-old practice that has worked well in
Amish communities to this day. In the far future of the Golden
Oecumene, shunning is even more effective because it is implemented
through sense filtering. The shunned person is not merely ignored;
he is literally invisible.
In addition to the College of Hortators, real power
rests with the economic barons of the Golden Oecumene, the
aristocratically-named Peers. The Peers choose their own membership.
Among them are Orpheus Myriad Avernus, founder of the Second
Immortality; Kes Sennec, the Invariant logician; and Helion, the
sire of Phaethon and builder of the solar array for managing energy
of the Sun from inside the star itself.
Now to the story…AND THE SPOILERS. Phaethon the
engineer discovers, at the start of the first book, that he has
forgotten something. As he begins to make enquiries about his
surprising memory loss, he is told again and again that he should
leave well enough alone. At last, he learns that he himself agreed
to have certain memories sequestered. If he breaks the seal and
retrieves these memories, he will be in violation of his agreement,
and will be accountable to the College of Hortators.
Phaethon breaks the seal and retrieves his
memories. He learns that he had spent the last three hundred years
building the only star ship in the Golden Oecumene. The Peers
opposed this. Now Phaethon is in violation of his agreement and will
Bad as that is, Phaethon is even more distressed
when he finds that his beloved wife Daphne (full name: Daphne
Tercius Semi-Rhadamanth) has left him and locked herself into a
virtual reality capsule within her native Red School. He cannot
reach her by message or by touch. Daphne is as lost to Phaethon as
if she were dead.
Even worse, Phaethon finds himself under attack. No
one else witnesses these attacks. And when Phaethon agrees to allow
his memories to be probed, even these recordings from his own mind
fail to verify his claims.
An even more ambiguous situation develops when
Daphne seems to come back to Phaethon. Then he recognizes this
Daphne as a “doll” or synthetic version of his wife. At first he
rejects her. But this synthetic, modified version of Daphne proves
to be so much kinder, tougher and more loving than his actual wife,
that Phaethon falls in love with her.
Much more happens, but I am done with spoiling your
fun. Let me conclude by listing some of the issues Mr. Wright raises
in this splendid trilogy:
Are we our memories? Can we live satisfying lives
if part of our past has been hidden from us?
Can we trust our perceptions? And when we enhance
ourselves through transhumanist technologies, giving us virtually
complete control over our sensory apparatus, how will we judge the
veracity of what we see and hear?
Is society better off if civility is enforced by
moral suasion rather than elective government? Should an individual
be allowed to give up his memories as part of a contractual
What defines personhood? Is the synthetic copy of
Daphne in some sense less than the original? But how can this copy,
with its improved capacities for love, struggle and kindness, be
less than the original?
Finally, when the immortality system makes a
back-up copy of a mind and then reinstantiates it in another body,
is this mind the same person or a different one? In other words, is
the person a pattern or is there something essential about a
particular body-mind that cannot be copied and reproduced?