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The Golden Age
John C. Wright
Tor Books, 336 pages

The Golden Age: A Romance of the Far Future
John C. Wright
John C. Wright is a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor. He presently lives in Virginia, with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their two children. He has published shorter works in Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, one of which was selected to appear in Year's Best SF 3 edited by David G. Hartwell for 1997.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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Baroque is back, and better than ever. John C. Wright's first novel, The Golden Age, is in some ways a throw-back to the grand, extravagant visions of SF's past. But it is also a thoroughly 21st century look at a future solar system-spanning civilization, comprised of artificial intelligences, group minds, and immortal humans. Humans live almost entirely in a virtual reality tuned to their own personality and philosophy. People literally see the world according to a chosen aesthetic, and the conventions and customs of society have much to do with respecting and not interfering with another person's experience of reality. Everyone is seen only as they want to be seen, everyone conforms to the conventions that make it work. It's a seemingly utopian paradise, and most prefer to keep it as it is. One man has a plan to shake things up.

That man is Phaethon, an engineer and visionary who, as The Golden Age begins, discovers that he has recently entered into an agreement to wipe most of the last two hundred and fifty years of his life from his memory. His attempts to find out why he agreed to have his memory erased and whether he should seek to regain his memories form the narrative structure of the story. From his wife to his father to the AI Sophotechs that dominate much of this society, all advice is to leave it alone. Phaethon wonders what he could have done that was so horrible. When he finds out, he has to decide whether he'd do it again.

Wright tells this story in language that is florid and fantastic. This is not the stripped down prose of conventional hard SF, nor is it the kind of high-tech poetry the cyberpunks introduced, it has more in common with the extravagance of A.E. van Vogt or Alfred Bester. All place names are exotic. People's names are long descriptive titles, conveying not only their social background, but also their relationship (download, copy, partial extension) to the personality that originally bore that name. Almost every name and title in The Golden Age has several layers of meaning, fitting for people who live in multiple layers of reality at once.

The Golden Age is only the first half of the story, there is a planned sequel, The Phoenix Exulatant. It is really one story though, as The Golden Age has no resolution at its ending, we find out where Phaethon has been, but not where he's going to go. But in this first volume, Wright has created a society as complicated and multi-layered as any ever envisioned in science fiction. It's a society with a history, the characters know where they are, how and why they got there. As long as their memories are intact, anyway.

When science fiction fans talk about the golden age, they're usually referring the 40s, when John W. Campbell was editor for Heinlein and Asimov and all the others. David Hartwell has defined the golden age as 12, when a young reader's sense of wonder is at its peak. The Golden Age speaks to both of these definitions and more. It's a novel of modern science and historical scope, firmly rooted in SF's vision of humanity expanding into the universe. And there is plenty of sense of wonder for the twelve year old in all of us. It's a fascinating, challenging, highly enjoyable read, a book that will be talked about for many years to come.

Copyright © 2002 Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson is resigned to experienceing the everyday reality of life in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His reviews also appear in The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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