The Golden Age, by John C. Wright
Saint Martin's Press, 2002, £6.99, 416pp
ISBN 0812579844

This reviewed first appeared in The Alien Online

Christopher, the protagonist of Mark Haddon's excellent The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, suffers from Asperger's Syndrome. He dislikes new places because they overwhelm him: on his first trip to London he has to literally shut out the world around him because there is too much stimulus for him to deal with and he is unable to prioritise it.

Something similar happens initially with The Golden Age: the reader is thrust into a far, far future world of extraordinary complexity and.richness. Having previously read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, I was instantly struck by the analogy between the flood of images, sounds and sensations that overwhelm poor Christopher, and the similar effect that the opening pages of The Golden Age had upon me. Its Prologue alone, not even a whole page long, took five minutes to read and digest. It was a wonderful feeling - here was a piece of writing brimming with possibilities and uncompromising complexity. This, I thought, is what science fiction should be like.
My hopes were very high indeed for The Golden Age.

Where to begin? Phaethon lives in the Golden Oecumene (Oecumene means, roughly, 'union'), a solar system-wide neo-utopia, possessed of stupendous wealth and power which has defeated death, turned Jupiter into a second sun, tamed and regulated the actual sun itself and is supervised by benevolent AIs (called Sophotechs) whose intellect dwarfs any mere humans'. It's a place of magnificent spectacle and achievement as far beyond our imagination as modern London might be to Cro-Magnon man.

But Phaethon is troubled: stepping, one fine day, onto the golden streets of Earth, he meets a strange old man who doesn't recognise Phaeton yet refers venomously to terrible deeds Phaethon has committed but has no recollection of. Almost immediately after this, a Neptunian, one of the more eccentric residents of the Golden Oecumene, offers to assist him in reclaiming some lost memories that are, he suggests, of vital importance. But his memories can only be reclaimed if Phatehon leaves immediately for Neptune - a long journey, even in such a miraculous age.
Naturally, Phaethon refuses.

Thus is set in motion a remarkable journey through an even more remarkable world, as our hero (or is he?) tries to ascertain what, if anything, he may have forgotten, how, and for what possible reason. The Golden Age then follows Phaethon's tortuous progress trying to unravel the tangled web of memory - and a tangled web it is.

The Golden Age isn't an action-packed tale of swashbuckling skulduggery or intergalactic war. This is in many ways a classic sight-seeing voyage around a solar system transformed almost beyond recognition, and our interest is not merely sustained across 400-odd pages by 'gosh-wow' spectacle (although this never harms it). Wright also has a detective plot (the mystery of Phaethon's amnesia) that is quite sensibly and believably followed, and as the cherry on the top of this literary cake, he weaves pertinent philosophical questions throughout.

Descartes' most basic question: how do we know what is real? is here rendered an order of magnitude more complicated by advanced technologies that can erase, replace, reorder and create memories, but at its core the question remains as basic as that - how do we know what is real? And to continue with the Cartesian conundrums, who (or what) can we trust in our search to find out? Phaethon, a character in the Classic mould (in that he is not always likeable, but does possess admirable qualities), must find his way through a labyrinth of deception to discover a truth of which all he knows is that it must be found - not least because, regardless of its cost, the truth alone can set you free.

There are endless comparisons to be made with The Golden Age; at times it seems a homage to Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality Of Man stories, in the sheer Byzantine scale and filigreed complexity of the Golden Oecumene, so many aspects of which are entirely alien to us. The second comparison would have to be to Iain M. Banks' Culture: the main differences being a lack of interstellar ambition (forgivable, perhaps, since unlike the Culture the Golden Oecumene exists within the laws of physics and cannot travel faster than light - how very different might Banks' utopia be if it operated within such limits?), and an overly ostentatious surface display of wealth that, compared to the smooth economical stylings of the Culture, seems somewhat excessive. But that's merely an aesthetic judgement on my part.

The third and most blindingly obvious comparison, to my mind, is to John Clute's Appleseed, another book that wraps itself in language with the gusto of a child in a costumiers'. Both books are nominally space opera, although both transcend that sub-genre's limitations. Both relish the use of stylised language that is needed to portray a world so very, very different from our own; both books render themselves deliberately opaque at times in order to achieve this 'alienating' effect without becoming completely unreadable. Both are sf books for sf readers - beware the casual reader who picks up either of these novels - in that there is, at times, so little in either of them that we as 21st-century human beings can relate to. Both books necessitate a willingness to be overwhelmed by everything 'around' us in the story (as Christopher is in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time), to be unable to immediately prioritise and assimilate what we see, adrift in a sea of descriptions and words and syntax that is outside our individual experience. But, unlike Christopher, the sf reader has to trust that this literary equivalent of Asperger's Syndrome is a temporary situation born of an abrupt departure from the familiar and easily-conjured world, and that with time and a little patience it will be possible to construct an explicable, predictable world in our minds.

Of the two books, The Golden Age is actually more readable than Appleseed; once the opening chapters have been carefully navigated then it is easier to follow the language. In this respect in particular I would argue that The Golden Age actually benefits substantially from being the much longer piece, better repaying the intellectual effort required to wrestle meaning and order from its pages - Clute's Appleseed, by comparison, can at its close leave the reader feeling as though she has been short-changed because there is relatively little story there behind the dazzling façade of the language (although this dazzling facade is something of an achievement in itself). In The Golden Age the language is carefully woven round an almost equally demanding plot following one man's search for a truth that threatens to destroy him in a society that has come to value safety perhaps too highly.

The Golden Age is something sadly far more rare than it ought to be in science fiction: a bright, rarefied and thoughtful novel, revelling in wild ideas and almost cluttered with beauty. John C. Wright has taken a great many classic ideas of the genre and recycled them with a rare skill, fashioning the familiar into something really quite bold and exciting. What a shame, then, that the proofreading in the edition I have should be so poor.

This is a wonderful book, and if you consider yourself a lover of science fiction in its purer forms then I highly recommend it to you.

(and thanks to Ariel for mentioning this book in his blog, otherwise I doubt I ever would have discovered it)

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