Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Book Review: The Golden Age
Over the last decade or so, I’ve shifted away from reading fiction, toward primarily history or science texts, with occasional stop-offs at cultural studies and philosophy. When I do read novels, I read almost exclusively science fiction or pulp fiction. Just the way I am. And because I’m me, most of the science fiction I read is older stuff, from the 60s or earlier. Part of this is because of the trends of the past few decades in content, but a lot of it is in the trends in style. I have a saying: “If you can’t say it in 250 pages, you’re probably saying it wrong. If you can’t say it in 500 pages, you are saying it wrong.” It’s a very rare book that makes even starts to test the validity of that statement. With the rise of the Kevin J. Anderson/Robert Jordan/Terry Goodkind type of ‘death of trees’ fiction (I once heard Robert Jordan called ‘The Death of Trees’ due to the absolute shocking page count of his so long he died before he could finish Wheel of Time series), I've found myself uninterested in sitting down to so many gigantic books, no matter how interesting the story seemed. Especially with my more active consumption of non-fiction, I couldn’t see the point in investing in some 600, 900, 1200 page monster novel that could probably have been edited down to 300 pages without losing a bit of the meat. Still, on occasion, I spot a longer book that grabs my attention for some reason. Something about the concept, some hint that there might be something special in there. One such book was The Golden Age. John C. Wright seems to be a rising (risen?) star in new science fiction, delving into grand space opera, which thank goodness seems to be making a comeback.
Besides bloated page counts, the recent decades’ glut of military/alternate history has become tiresome in the extreme. For years, walking into any given bookstore chain’s science fiction section you could be sure to find plenty of John Ringo type military stuff, Harry Turtledove type alternate history stuff, and shelves upon shelves of vampire/werewolf/demon/angel romance garbage. But other than a few core classics like Ringworld or Starship Troopers, precious little solid science fiction. That seems to be changing and I’m glad of it. Wright has crafted a book that reaches back into the mind expanding insanity of some Olaf Staplrdon or William Hope Hodgeson and blends it with the most wild and out there theories of transhumanism and post singularity crazy. In The Golden Age, we are transported to a point so far into the future that while some people may resemble 21st century humans, outside of a few fringe extremist groups, few would be recognizable in any meaningful way to a person of our time. These are world builders, mass minds, sentient software, nomadic intelligences, and things harder to explain.
Against this alien future, human passions and frailties still lurk. The battle between the individual and the collective, between ambition and security, between peace and a life worth living. A technological Eden, it may also be the ultimate trap, a glorious multi-millennial burnout of a species. When humanity has become as gods, how will they use their power? Do we need conflict to make things worth while? Must we always strive, or may we finally be content? Is dangerous and potentially devastating recklessness evil, or is it necessary for a species to survive and thrive? These are some of the questions at the heart of the book. Though the central question for much of the book is, ‘what did Phaeton do?’ Our protagonist is part of the elite of this Golden Age. He’s a prime mover and shaker, responsible for vast sums of money and energy. But when he finds himself unable to shake a vague malaise while attending a massive world party, he begins to unravel a mystery. Why do people look at him with trepidation? Why do people seem to be talking about him in hushed voices? And what could possibly have prompted an entire society to be willing to edit out large chunks of their memory; what could have been so bad, and what was Phaeton’s role in it all?
This isn’t an action adventure novel. It isn’t a war story. And Wright doesn’t go out of his way to explain things to you. You’ve got to pay attention and you’ve got to think. He doesn’t make it easy, but he also doesn’t make it unnecessarily difficult. And the book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, however the story is unfinished. So, at some point I’ve got to grab a copy of The Phoenix Exhalant. I’m very curious to see what is next for this Golden Age of Humanity.
The Golden Age
Author: John C. Wright