In Greek mythology, the Golden Age was an era in which humanity lived like gods, nearly immortal, without wars (because there were no nations or governments or weapons) and without need or appetite of any kind. It didn't last. In taking the name of "The Golden Age" as the title for his first novel, John C. Wright seems to suggest that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
Of course, the Golden Age also refers to the pulp science fiction tradition of the 1930s and 1940s in which fabled editors Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell Jr. captained a bold band of storytellers who crafted tales of intergalactic adventure nevertheless grounded in scientific speculations: writings that reflected the zeitgeist of an emerging industrial nation and world superpower. Just to be sure you get that, on the dustcover above the title appears this description: "An Epic of SF Adventure."
Considering that I recently had to explain to a 12 year old that the wooden dialogue of Star Wars was a jokey riff on the famous (well, maybe not so famous considering that she had never head of it) Flash Gordon episodic films, I suppose that there are readers who won't get it, any more than they'll get the myriad allusions to classical philosophy, SF and mainstream literature, and contemporary culture. I suspect that a few went over my gray-haired head as well.
No matter. Even if you don't recognize all the references, The Golden Age is still a marvelous romp. It may deepen your pleasure to catch the more obvious allusions (when the main character wishes to reach "home," he clicks his heels three times) or deepen your understanding to pick up on more the abstruse ones (the novel's actual subtitle, "A Romance of the Far Future" alludes to Olaf Stapledon's SF classic Last and First Men: A Romance of the Near and Far Future), but you don't need to go reference-hunting. This story, like all the best stories, can work without explanation.
In some ways, SF storytellers had it easier in the Golden Age. To evoke the future, all they had to do was strap a blaster onto their characters' hips, mumble something or other about the atomic drive that got them to other worlds, paint the aliens green and maybe add a set of arms or eyes or webbed feet. In projecting a far-future humanity, Wright has to be a bit more inventive, since our present contains so much that only a short while ago was considered futuristic. Of course, predicting the future is not the point. But in paying homage to the space opera tradition, Wright avoids the cliches (except where he's making fun of them) while placing the convention in a whole new context. At the same time, quite in the tradition of Stapledon, Wright poses the big questions as to what makes human existence meaningful, though in a way that is perhaps more entertaining.
As in the Golden Age of Greece, humanity has achieved virtual immortality, with the emphasis on the "virtual" as the means of life extension, as opposed to the grace of the gods. While still possessing flesh and blood bodies, people for the most part "exist" on a higher plane of computer-generated simulacra. As Wright describes it:
Here was a future where all men were recorded as brain-information in a diamond logic crystal occupying the core of the earth; there was one where all humanity existed in the threads of a plantlike array of sails and panels forming a Dyson Sphere around the sun; a third promised, larger than worlds, housings for trillions of minds and superminds, existing in the absolute cold of trans-Neptunian space -- cold was required for any truly precise subatomic engineering -- but with rails of elevators of unthinkably dense material running across hundreds of AU, across the whole width of the solar system, and down into the mantle of the sun, both to mine the hydrogen ash for building matter, and tap the vast energy of Sol, should ever matter or energy in any amount be needed by the immobile deep-space mainframes housing the minds of mankind.
The Golden Age has been compared to Neuromancer in that its breathtaking, if sometimes abstruse, language comprises original world building of the first rank. While it seems unlikely that Wright's work will match Gibson's by inspiring a subgenre of its own, that is no criticism of Wright's creative prowess. Gibson's success was enhanced by the emergence of the Internet and computing capabilities that seemed to turn his vision of the digital age into realizable reality. His notions of "envisioning data" and avatars are not that far removed from what has actually evolved. Wright's future is not analogous to the Internet. (I doubt any of us will be inhabiting virtual Dyson Spheres around the sun anytime soon.) Instead, it represents what cybergenetics could conceivably lead to -- a world so fabricated, so literally and "spiritually" unreal that it is arguably no longer human. For whatever adventures Case had in Gibsonian cyberspace, the characters were all too human, particularly their negative sides.
While the postulated virtual worlds of The Golden Age are extraordinarily inventive, the plot, or at least what we have of it so far, is a bit more conventional, loosely based on the Greek myth of Phaethon, the offspring of the sun god Helios. Accused of being illegitimate, Phaethon drove a drove a sun chariot through the heavens to prove his parentage, creating the Milky Way galaxy. Unfortunately, he's still on a learner's permit and gets too close to the Earth. To prevent the planet's complete incineration by the scorching flames of the chariot, Zeus kills Phaeton with a thunderbolt (though you would think a little water might have done the trick as well).
Similarly, Wright's namesake wants to explore interstellar space, a venture which the ruling Peers (among them his ostensible father, named Helion) fear will upset the stability of a highly complacent civilization that, for all its technological achievement, is content to remain within the physical boundaries of the solar system. Instead of killing Wright's version of Phaethon, the Peers erase his memory so he will not only abandon the project, but will have no recollection of ever trying. Moreover, Phaethon consents to this amnesiac state. The book is about how -- and, more importantly, why -- Phaeton chooses to discover what has happened to his memory and to retrieve it, despite the warnings of dire consequences not only to himself, but his family.
Wright casts his Phaeton in the classic Heinlein mold, with a significant additive of the Ayn Rand individualist. He is a man of action, the consequences be damned, even if it threatens the greater good. For there can be no "greater good" if it stymies the individual initiative, creativity and risk taking that make humanity a force even in an immense universe and that inspire others to strive further towards ever new achievements.
The plot is not all individualistic heroics, however. The author is a retired attorney, so it is not surprising that some legalistic leavening moves the plot along. It is also, in parts, very funny.
What it is not, however, is finished. The ending, though it nicely reflects the philosophical proposition of the premise, is just a cliffhanger for a concluding volume (entitled Phoenix Exultant, due out in January of 2003). Until the real ending is revealed, I'll have to reserve judgment on Wright's talents as a storyteller. And the wait seems unnecessary. At 336 pages, The Golden Age is hardly weighty in comparison to the 800-page doorstoppers that burden book sellers' shelves. The complete tale could have been bound in one volume. But, no, readers not only have to wait, they have to shell out another $25 to find out how the story works out. The same sort of strategy was employed by Tony Daniel's publisher, whose Metaplanetary is another highly inventive and distinctive space opera that ends as the preface for a concluding volume. Maybe it's an industry trend. No, come to think about it, it's really just the continuation of a longstanding tradition set by the aforementioned Flash Gordon serials: keep them hanging on the edge of their seats at the end so they'll come back next week and pay for more of the same.
Alas, the wait will be longer than a week. But I suspect it will be worth it.
David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.