Short and sweet: The Golden Age, first of a trilogy, is fun book, set thousands of years in the future yet strangely appropriate to our own time. Packed with memorable characters and Wright’s usual boatload of fascinating ideas. Read it now.
This book, along with the rest of the trilogy – The Phoenix Exultant and the Golden Transcendence – were about eye-high, when I’m seated, in the bookcase to my left where the SF&F I’m supposed to have read by now is kept. The education stuff, once seated in my office, is above eye level straight ahead, and thus easier to ignore…
Just finished rereading this, noticed I’d never reviewed it. Reminds me of Lord of the World in one critical respect: it asks the question – what if things work out? What if the promised Golden Age is indeed brought about by human effort? Benson sets his story right about now, and the ‘technology’ that succeeds is centralized control of everything – a plausible enough fantasy for the earliest years of the 20th century, before WWI, the Russian Revolution, WWII and the Cold War made it seem too fantastical. Wright sets his story many thousands of years into the future, and gives hints about all the wars and troubles humanity went through to get there, but, by this time, (almost) all people – vanilla and enhanced, and machine intelligences, and collective minds – believe they are in a Golden Age, free from want and violence, free to enjoy fantasies both mundane and esoteric.
Both Benson and Wright address: What could possibly go wrong?
One exception is our protagonist, Phaeton, son of unimaginably brilliant and rich Helion, who is attending the once-in-a-millennium months-long party known as the Transcendence. Here, along with entertainments and competitions, possible future scenarios for the next thousand years will be presented for public approval. These scenarios are worked out by the Peers – the richest, most powerful minds in the Solar System, of which Helion is one – with the aid of sophotechs – strictly computer intelligences that run everything for maximum human comfort and freedom, after a fashion. Once a consensus on a desirable future is reached, the sophotechs will do whatever is necessary to make it happen.
Technology has advanced to the point where no one need see or experience or remember anything they don’t want. Depending on individual wealth, a person might live in a vivid construct of their own design, produced and managed by their own sophotech, if they’ve got one. Individuality is expressed in what kind of construct one chooses to live in, and under what rules. Should it be ‘realistic’? Should all pleasures and pains be enhanced? Beautiful? Under what standard of beauty?
A person can choose where to be within these various constructs, whether to see things as they appear to the naked eye, to filter out unpleasant things, to add more pleasant things, or to simply become immersed in a complete dreamworld. People can chose to see the world from other people’s ‘perspective’ – that is, within the constructs and rules other have chosen. Memories and minds themselves can be recorded, stored, transferred, and destroyed.
All sophotechs cooperate in creating the Earth Mind, which is the greatest intelligence in the Solar System, who keeps everything pleasant and peaceful, and to whom all turn for guidance.
The sophotechs will not, however, interfere with human desires that are merely self-destructive. Private rights, including property rights, are pretty much absolute. It’s a libertarian paradise, up to a point. The Peers are unimaginably wealthy, and like it that way. People routinely join group minds, which is, effectively, suicide after the manner, but much more pleasantly than, being assimilated by the Borg. Or submerge themselves in a dream world from which they can never be reawakened.
Phaeton quickly realizes something is wrong in his beautiful dreamworld, something he can’t quite remember. Wandering the vast parklands created for the Transcendence, he encounters a cryptic old man who offers a few baffling hints, and a strange blue Neptunian. The Neptunians are among the few who aren’t enraptured by the current state of affairs, and thus live past Neptune out where they can enjoy a degree of freedom – miserable (by comparison) lonely freedom.
The Neptunian tries repeatedly to get Phaeton to accept some seemingly harmless direct mental interactions, to grant some direct access to his mind, which Phaeton rejects. The Neptunian hastily departs just as Atkins, the last soldier and the one mind in the Oecomene left who can wield deadly violence for the state, shows up, and yet another cryptic encounter befalls Phaeton.
The story then deploys the amnesia device: protagonist wanders from clue to clue, trying desperately to discover what he has forgotten. He discovers his memories are locked away somewhere, and that he agreed to their removal, and agreed not to retrieve them…
Wright fertile imagination always supplies many characters to his stories. Here, among many others, we meet Gannis, a group mind and an adversary, Daphne, Phaeton’s wife, Helion, his tragic father, and, best of all, Radamanthus, the house sophotech for Helion’s and Phaeton’s manor house. Radamanthus has a wonderful sense of humor, appearing in the constructs sometimes as a portly butler, sometimes a geometric figure, but, usually, as a penguin.
The book ends with what is almost literally a cliffhanger, after a trial scene reminiscent of the climax of heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. On to the Phoenix Exultant.