Review: The Golden Age by John C. Wright

Rating:

The Golden Age by John C. Wright
2002, Tor

Review Summary: John C. Wright’s The Golden Age is an ambitious work of future techno-culture, but unfortunately, even while showcasing several very interesting theories and worldviews, parts of the novel cause the story to come off as a little flat.

Full Review:

John C. Wright’s The Golden Age is an ambitious work of future techno-culture, but unfortunately, even while showcasing several very interesting theories and worldviews, parts of the novel cause the story to come off as a little flat.

Plot and character are inextricable in this novel, being as it is a spin-off on the standard “amnesiac as hero” mystery. It was several chapters before I even started to become interested in the main character, Phaethon, chapters in which the author was able to start casting a complex technical society but during which the main character felt rather boring and lifeless. As the story progresses, of course, there are hints that the character is more than he first appears and gradually, as the character starts becoming more and more certain that he is not fully remembering all of his previous life, there are additional, unsubtle indications of what he is missing, strong sketches of what his former ambitions might have been, impressions of former alliances, and vague references to indicate who his enemies may have been, or may continue to be – all of which quickly becomes annoying and which is also dragged out long after my interest in and sympathy for the main character has peaked. The overall effect is tiring, rather than intriguing, the “revelations” discovered once the character regains his memory less of a reward for the reader than a relief. The exchange of a confusing murder attempt for the question of Phaethon’s missing memories seems sloppily handled, and does not engender excitement in the crucial final stage of the novel.

The ending was the most disappointing for me, with its abrupt cut-off and little effort made to frame the novel as any kind of stand-alone piece of work. The novel rapidly crescendos to a trial of the main character before the College of Hortators, and then just decrescendos to… nothing. Phaethon is shunned, immediately shut out of the College, and awakes into real time alone, left to trudge down the stairs from the heights of an atmosphere-breaching tower to the earth, growing more cynical and more unattractive with every step. The final unrevealing, unremarkable chapter would probably have better served to set the scene as the opening chapter for the sequel, unabashedly announced at the end of this trek, “HERE ENDS VOLUME I, TO BE CONCLUDED IN VOLUME II, The Phoenix Exultant”.

That being said, what I do find intriguing about the novel is the background world of the story, some of which is essential to the plots developed in the story. The work is an excellent extrapolation of a future where one’s identity can be assumed, subsumed, self-modified, replicated, backed-up, and restored – all provided one has the means and resources to do so. The essence of the world feels very true to life given the current direction of our own present-day cyber culture, and serves as much as a cautionary tale as an exploration of what might one day be possible. In a world where there is so much wealth of knowledge and almost limitless individual freedom, the gravest battle of wills is not necessarily with others, but with oneself, choosing to be self-disciplined, creative, and productive in a world where so much can so easily be taken for granted.

The theoretical practice of law in this new world of identity, intellectual property, and excised memories is also fascinating, as is the myriad forms and origins of the different human and computer-based intelligences. The author’s creation of the “College of Hortators” as an informal consensus-making body, enforcing its judgments with a form of social and economical shunning, while somewhat abhorrent, also seems to be a very possible – perhaps even the only – method in which individual behaviors can be placed in check in this future world.

I may pick up the second volume of the novel just to see whether the author is able to bring the conceptual parts of his story to a close, but at the moment I could scarcely care less about the main character’s plight, which is unfortunate since the novel otherwise seems to hold such promise.

02/28/07 CSL

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