writes of space opera that “the Earth must be in peril, there must be a quest and a man to match the mighty hour. That man must confront aliens and exotic creatures. Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher. Blood must run down the palace steps, and ships launch into the louring dark. There must be a woman fairer than the skies and a villain darker than a Black Hole. And all must come right at the end.”
’s space opera trilogy is a stunning achievement of imagination and ideas. These three books literally overflow with discourse and design, but in the end this ambition also burdens them down and weakens some of their power. Set several millennia in the future, in a society that can perhaps be classed as a Randian utopia, we aare thrust, in media res, into the life of a “young” member of the elite, Phaethon. We realize at once there are grander things at play. Short of naming his protagonist “Prometheus,” immediately invests the weight of allusion into his novel and character. More of the same is yet to come.
Phaethon’s world, the Golden Oecumene, stands on the eve of a golden transcendence, where minds will merge and form the basis of new social ideas and directions. Major celebrations lasting an entire year mark this event, and Phaethon takes a break from one celebration and stumbles upon a chance encounter that changes his life forever. A space traveler informs him that his memories have been erased to atone for and forget a most memorable and horrific crime. Instantly the lone enforcement arm of Phaethon’s universe appears at the scene, treating the manifestation of the space traveler as a hostile act of incursion, and sending away the now confused Phaethon. What manner of crime could he have committed, since he still lives, yet suffers a slice of memory not of days, but centuries?
As the scion of the House of Radamanthus, one of the foremost family manors, Phaethon oozes privilege. His “father,” Helion, controls the Solar Array, a vast source of energy. At Phaethon’s mental fingertips are controls, filters, computer assisted memory and input, all managed by a Sophotech, an Artificial Intelligence created by humans to manage their affairs. In turn these Sophotechs have grown vast and powerful—god-like, almost. Now, imbued with autonomous motives sometimes at odds with humanity, they have become integral to society, which depends on them to grant almost immortality to humans.
The human relationships extend beyond our current conceptions. For Phaethon is not Helion’s son by traditional means. He is virtually a clone, although they maintain a father-son relationship and bond. And Helion? Is he really Helion, since the primary body and mind were destroyed by a solar flare, and the current “version” lacks some of Helion’s most recent memories and thoughts? In addition, Phaethon’s original wife, a true-born human in the conventional sense, has locked herself away in a deep sleep due to his vast and unknown crime. There is no way for him to contact her, though she has left behind a copy, with her own feelings for Phaethon, and quite a strong will.
From within this world, where everyone’s memories of his grand crime appear erased or hidden, Phaethon faces a harsher threat: should he recover his memories his society would banish him forever, strip away his immortality, and refuse any assistance. Computation time is the new currency; he has no money and lives on his father’s generosity. His gorgeous world is in fact a simulation. His rude body, stripped of all interfaces and computer access, will be his only home.
Despite this threat, Phaethon seeks to find a way to both recover his memories and remain within his world. This quest drives the events of the first novel in the trilogy, The Golden Age, which in itself stands as a remarkable first novel. The book is filled with a sense of wonder, desire, individuality, and hymn to the human mind. I alluded earlier to a Randian utopia. Phaethon's world is on the surface quite free: government is limited, but firmly in place, enforced with a super-soldier/policeman known as Atkins. With every cell a weapon, Atkins by himself appears enough of a deterrent of crime, or the enforcement of law, to handle millions of citizens. Arriving at the scene of the intruder who informed Phaethon of his memory loss, Atkins remains a thorn in Phaethon’s side throughout the novels, yet also later becomes a valuable ally. Phaethon alludes several times to the free nature of his society, which values reason and individual property rights to the extent that people own planets and planetary rings, and attempt engineering feats that would horrify any preservationist.
When in the course of The Golden Age Phaethon finally uncovers his crime, he is in fact exiled. Cast out from the vast space elevator that houses his flesh while he lives in the virtual spaces created and maintained by the Sophotechs. He discovers that he possesses a golden armor capable of sustaining him, quite vital when every citizen refuses his aid. His crime? He had built a vast spacecraft and sought to travel the reaches of space. For it seems that the Sophotechs and human governors favor a closed society, fearing humanity will scatter and divide, then turn back on itself through war and envy.
There is a certain history behind this view. Several centuries in the past, a group of humans had pushed beyond known space, establishing another Oecumene. Isolated, on the edge of a black hole with infinite power, this Oecumene became twisted and evil. Phaethon now believes they are the source of his woes, that this polar opposite culture stands poised to invade and destroy his own Oecumene. No one, of course, believes him. Instead, they see Phaethon, like his namesake, intent on controlling that which he cannot control, and in the process become the destroyer of his own society.
The Golden Age concludes with Phaethon taking his first steps into exile. The second volume, The Phoenix Exultant, focuses on this exile, which takes place on Earth. Amid other exiled humans and machines, even lower in status than himself, Phaethon struggles to win back his wealth. He does not seek as much to return to his former status as he does to re-attain possession of his star-ship, The Phoenix Exultant. Were he to possess this vessel, nothing would prevent him from heading out into space; he is, initially, resigned to life outside his former society.
Unbidden, he finds allies who dare go against the edicts preventing offering him aid. His wife’s duplicate, who appears in love with Phaethon, travels into exile to find him. Aktins, the enforcer, appears at dire moments to thwart his enemies, who begin to show themselves when they realize that Phaethon might prove a strong opponent to their plans. Through great effort and perseverance, Phaethon surges back into his former life, and sneaks aboard his ship to assume control. The second volume concludes as the ship readies for departure into space, seeking to take the battle to his enemies, the visitors from that other Oecumene.
The final volume of the trilogy, The Golden Transcendence, seeks to answer many questions. On the macro scale: Who are Phaethon’s enemies, and what lies behind this invading force? On the personal side: Will Phaethon be able to save his wife or accept instead the copy of his wife, alive and in love with him. How will Phaethon deal with the copy of his father, and can he return to his former life? Unfortunately, in the final volume, the action bogs down into lengthy debates, dialogs, philosophical discussions, and second guessing.
The novels are rife with moments of literary delight, especially in conversation and observation of actions and motives, that mirror the style of. clearly admires , as well as , but he does not imitate these writers slavishly. As the trilogy progresses, we witness struggling to find his own voice. The downside of this development is that all too often the dialog dominates, and we sit through endless discourses of doubt, like John Galt channeling Hamlet.
However, part of the trouble with The Golden Age trilogy is that so much of the metaphors and images of this far-future society resemble in great detail our very own 20th century geek-speak. The Neptunians play pranks on each other by sending Trojan horse viruses, citizens spend much of their time in various states of virtual reality. Sophisticated AIs act as governors, yet behave much like Greek gods, petty and peevish at times, cold and cynical otherwise. One does get the impression thathas a great deal of skill at painting a vast canvass. Due to its scope, such a canvass won’t fit everywhere, might not suit everyone, and there are pieces that one might feel would be better off muted or left out altogether.
Much like the recent Matrix trilogy, the Golden Age trilogy rises fast then falls under its own weight and pretensions. The first volume stands as the strongest work, blazing the sky with breadth and imagination. The second dims sightly, taking a more contemplative turn. The third veers off into metaphysics of a confusing and distracting sort. Yet despite the flaws from such a path,has written a fascinating work of speculation that goes to the heart of sf, dealing unflinchingly with ideas, imagination, and the human condition.
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