NESFA Members' Reviews

The Golden Age

by John C. Wright

Tor, 2002, ISBN 0-312-84870-6

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

Some ten thousand years from now, humanity is living in a golden age--advances in technology and general wealth allow human beings both effective immortality and near-total control of their environment. People move through a landscape that's a mix of the physical world and cyberspace. Biological humans are considerably computer-enhanced, and share their world with mass-minds, Sophotechs (computer intelligences), and other oddities less easily described. There are limits to this civilization; there's no FTL, and as a result there are no extrasolar settlements (the only one known to have been attempted is believed to have failed quite a while ago). Neptune and the Kuiper Belt are settled by people who want more privacy and independence than the civilization of the Golden Oecumene affords. Saturn has not been developed because too many people are in favor of keeping the rings intact. So, effectively, the Golden Oecumene stretches from the sun out to Jupiter--and even Jupiter's residents still like to think of themselves as living on the frontier. In this strange and very effectively realized setting, a young man named Phaethon is attending a masquerade, part of a year-long, Earth-wide celebration which will culminate in a moment of Transcendence linking all the intelligences on the planet, which will set the agenda for the entire civilization for the next thousand years. As he wanders through what ought to be his own familiar world, though, Phaethon has several very strange encounters, and gradually realizes that he's lacking a good deal of his recent memory. Some investigation reveals that he has removed most of his memories for the last 250 years. This was apparently part of plea-bargain to avoid punishment for, not a crime, but some serious social offense that he committed, or was about to commit. As part of the deal imposed by the College of Hortators, everyone else was also supposed to remove their own memories of his actions, too. Somehow, though, Phaethon only encounters people who haven't, or who haven't yet, removed those memories--"primitivists" who refuse to do so, one of the rare Neptunian visitors to Earth, people involved in the decision, people who apparently just haven't gotten around to it.

(The Hortators a re not a court or a police force; they are a purely social institution. They cannot void contracts or impose legal penalties, but they can declare a shunning or ostracism, which is contagious--anyone who violates it also becomes subject to the ban. Their function is to prevent or punish behavior which is not technically illegal, but which is morally outrageous. It should perhaps be noted that very little other than murder or slavery is illegal in the Oecumene.)

What did Phaethon do or intend to do, and why did he agree to remove so much of his memory? He quickly concludes that he can't function intelligently without having some idea what happened. He can at any time simply access the memories involved, but if he does so, according to the terms of the agreement he made, he will be instantly, totally, and permanently ostracized. If that happens, he will no longer be immortal, he'll be limited to his biological body, and he'll lose all the resources necessary to do anything about it--whatever "it" turns out to be. Phaethon decides not to access the memories, and instead try to find the information by other means. Along the way, he discovers that his wife is not his wife, but an "emancipated" copy of her, that his father is also a copy, lacking the last hour of his original father's life, in which his father died working to preserve the solar array that powers a good deal of the Golden Oecumene--an event that is somehow a part of whatever Phaethon's crime is. He meets a being who claims to be one of his Neptunian friends, who warns him that all the Sophotechs are against him; he also meets a number of important Sophotechs who seem to be encouraging him to continue his search. Who, if anyone, can he trust?

What was intended to be a duology is now a trilogy due to the length of what was intended to be the second volume. Despite that annoyance, I can't recommend this book highly enough.

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