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September 1, 2005

Filed under: fiction»reviews»wright_j

Book Review: The Golden Age, by John C. Wright

You will either love or hate The Golden Age, depending on how you feel about explanation in your science fiction. Wright falls firmly on the posthuman side of SF, describing a utopian world where people can edit their mental makeup, physical bodies, and perceptions as they see fit. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it, but I don't see myself buying the other two volumes of the trilogy.

The Golden Age's protagonist is Phaeton, who finds out that his memory was edited after he took part in actions that disrupted society. The book describes his attempts to figure out what was in the missing memory and decide whether or not to restore the editing, even though doing so will result in his exile. Phaeton wanders through a wide variety of real and virtual settings, encountering superintelligent AI, mass minds, and specialized humans. Wright certainly makes the most of the setting, using it for several social and legal tangents, and he's good at describing these in a way that's interesting without being cloying or hiply obtuse.

I don't want to talk too much about the plot, since the discovery of its direction through Phaeton's memory is largely what drives The Golden Age. That leaves us with the characters and the setting, and as I've said they're largely personal preferences. I don't tend to buy the nanotech utopia that this kind of posthuman sci-fi relies on--it feels impersonal and implausible. For example, Wright comes out and clearly establishes that the pre-Phaeton world is meant to be a garden of eden, one where anything is possible as long as it's not dangerous to the existing order. Conversely, it's also clearly a capitalistic system, and I'm not entirely sure if Wright ever puts the two of those together to my satisfaction. It strikes me as more useful in metaphor than in practice. What do these people do for a living?

And why should I care? The trouble I have with a book like The Golden Age, about people who are so far removed from our own experiences and abilities, is I lose track of their limitations, and I can't empathize with them. Wright has done an admirable job of tying the plot to something simplistic (Phaeton's memory as the macguffin) in an effort to defuse that objection, but it's just not enough. The Golden Age is a book about big ideas, and perhaps they're simply too big for me to enjoy. It's not for me, but that doesn't mean I can't recognize its quality. If you're looking for a geekier, grander story, give The Golden Age a try. If you're like me, a child of grimier cyberpunk aspirations, see what else is on the shelf.

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