NESFA Members' Reviews

coverThe Phoenix Exultant

by John C. Wright

A book review by Mark L. Olson

Tor, 2003, $24.95, 304 pp

John Wright, as far as I know, is a new writer who has written a single, large book which Tor elected to bring out in three decent-sized volumes. This is part two of it. (I don't fault the decision to split it – it would have been very long otherwise. It could have been done in two reasonably-sized volumes, but after reading The Phoenix Exultant I think I understand why they didn't: There is no good place near the mid-point of the book to divide it. The story divides more naturally into three parts than two.)

In the first book, The Golden Age, Phaethon is a young man who finds himself in a dream-like world where his mind is heavily interfaced to computers and the computers control what he and everyone else sees and experiences in the world. This world – the Golden Oecumene – is a near-utopia, a true golden age for mankind, with wealth and variety of experience and very long life for nearly everyone. The time is the far-distant future: while our time is remembered well, it is but one age in a long, long roll of the ages.

Phaethon seems to have lost much of his memory. He has apparently been convicted of some heinous crime, and set free on condition that he allows all memory of his crimes to be removed. Now Phaethon wants to know what it was he did. Given a chance to regain his memory, he takes it and discovers that he was extraordinarily rich and had spent his wealth to build an interstellar ship, The Phoenix Exultant, which would allow him to explore beyond the Solar System.

The Solar System is long-settled, but other than one interstellar colony (the Silent Oecumene) which came to a very bad end, Mankind has simply stayed within the Solar System. Phaethon's crime? Risking upset to the peaceful order of Mankind's Golden Age – many people fear interstellar war if other, independent societies arise. Having regained his memories, he is again a criminal and is stripped of all association with his fellow men – shunned by all on pain of themselves being shunned – and all connection to the computer networks which make life so rich and good.

Thus it was at the end of the first book.

Volume two starts with Phaethon in this internal exile of shunning, with no one willing to help him, transport him, or sell or give him anything. He's given a hint of a location where other shunned people live and, after considerable difficulty, gets there. Along the way he again finds evidence that he is the target of some evil force which is operating unseen and unknown in the society and he concludes that it is an agent of the Silent Oecumene, which, while failed and apparently dead, may have left remnants with malign motives.

The refuge for shunned people turns out to be about as nasty as you'd expect a place of poverty peopled by the sorts of person who would get thrown out of paradise, but Phaethon perseveres. He wants to regain control of The Phoenix Exultant (he lost ownership of the ship, also) and still retains the pilot's armor which was designed for him to aid in flying the ship.

I think Wright must have realized that Phaethon's armor made him too powerful, so in a series of mishaps, the armor loses much of its ability to render Phaethon immune to conditions and Phaethon is now at his nadir. But he perseveres and tries to build up a functioning local economy to raise the funds to contact his ship.

But things are stirring. While the College of Hortators – a quasi-judicial body which guards the Golden Oecumene against dangerous people using only shunning as a weapon – still is trying to destroy him, he discovers that other powerful people and forces support him. In particular the Sophotechs, the enormously intelligent AIs who run the Golden Oecumene, but who rigorously leave humans alone to make their own decisions even to their own peril, seem to favor Phaethon and are willing to help him when they can do so without violating their own rules of self-restraint. And other people also support him.

The oddest is a doppelganger of his ex-wife. The technology of the Golden Oecumene allows recording copies of one's entire self. For most people, it's the ultimate backup, but some run several copies at a time. Phaethon's former wife committed a form of suicide, withdrawing into an completely self-contained, computer-generated fantasy world with no way out either from the inside or the outside. (The Sophotechs, of course, could unlock it, but they won't.) They do, however, allow one of her copies to become embodied and live, and they make sure that the copy does not possess the fatal mental flaw which led to the original's quasi-suicide.

She decides to join Phaethon in exile and there's a particularly well-handled section where he tries to avoid her as a copy of his idealized still-living wife, but eventually realizes he loves the copy which, while not the original, is closer to the woman he loved than the original is today.

At the end of the story, Phaethon has regained control of The Phoenix Exultant and is about to do something. I'm very much looking forward to the concluding section, The Golden Transcendence.

One of the many things Wright does well is deal with the inevitable problems of a world where AIs far smarter than humans exist. I've criticized Iain M. Banks's Culture series for just that reason – as he sets it up, the Minds which run the Culture are the real decision-makers, and the humans simply their pets.

Wright's Sophotechs do not run the Golden Oecumene in quite the same way. The Sophotechs actually let the humans make their own decisions for good and for ill. In one scene, two Sophotechs are trying to explain their motivations to Phaethon and they give three reasons for doing this. First, they see the Golden Oecumene as merely the starting point for a far greater melding of minds, and they believe that if they begin this evolution based on domination of humans it will be forever stained and less than it could be. Secondly, they find humans to be funny, and finally they love people. The latter two reasons very much sound like how adults think of very young babies.

I find this all to be far more plausible and far more attractive than Banks' Culture. (Additionally, while Banks is probably technically a better writer, and certainly excels in writing convoluted stories, his stories are in the end pedestrian, while Wright has written SF which has stroked my Sense of Wonder as thoroughly as anyone ever has.)

I've been trying to come up with a simile to describe these books. Currently the best I can do is that they're like Clarke's The City and the Stars written by Jack Vance in the style of The Dying Earth. But that isn't right, either.

Very highly recommended!

See also my reviews of other John C. Wight books: The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant

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