Recent Reading: The Golden Age trilogy by John C Wright

Well, The Golden Age trilogy was a unique reading experience for me.


I mean, I don’t read all that much hard SF, and this was very hard indeed. But more than that, I start a fair number of books I don’t much like. I don’t finish them. Life’s far too short to bother reading books you don’t like. If physical, those can just go on the give-away pile; if ebooks, they can be removed from the device and forgotten.

And I didn’t like this trilogy very much. Until halfway through the second book.

For the entire first half of the trilogy, I found the story intellectually interesting, but not emotionally engaging. Although Phaethon was a sympathetic protagonist and I liked him and wanted him to find out what was going on, defeat his enemies, and succeed in his aims, I wanted all those things in a kind of tepid well-it-would-be-nice sense, rather than being particularly emotionally invested in the outcome. But I’m glad I kept going, because, as I say, the story came alive for me halfway through the second book.

What made the difference? Well, partly the series of cascading disasters Phaethon suffers in the first book make it increasingly hard to engage emotionally, and those start to resolve in the second book. I mean, Phaethon still suffers reversals, some of them important, but after he first starts to recover, the reader never again has to tolerate the grim stepwise collapse of his life. So that’s a big help.

But even more important, my two favorite characters are Daphne Tercius, who is Phaeton’s wife (sort of) and Marshal Atkins (who is the only soldier the Golden Oecumene possesses, and the only one it needs). Though both Daphne and Atkins appear in the first book, they play much more important roles in the second book, and for me, Phaethon is a substantially more appealing protagonist in nearly every scene he shares with Daphne than he is when he’s alone. (Atkins I love all on his own.)

One particular scene involving Phaethon, Daphne, and Atkins takes place halfway through the second book and that scene is what kicked the reading experience from intellectual appreciation to real engagement. Here, for example, is a highly amusing exchange that takes place at that point. Remember that Phaethon and Daphne are married (more or less):

[Phaethon said] “If this machine was altered by the enemy, it could not have been for a good purpose.”

“But can’t you look at it and find out?” [asked Daphne.] “Have it check itself for flaws? Order it to re-set to zero? Do one of those things you are always doing to our systems at home whenever you are ignoring Rhadamanthus and don’t want to hear why what you’re doing is going to make things worse?”

He blinked. “Like when?”

“What about the time you collapsed the east wing of the mansion, when we were staying in New Paris? Or what about the time you were trying to re-thread all the impellers in our confluence register because you though it would get more tension out of the drive? All you did was capsize us into the lava.”

“I cannot believe you would bring that up again! That was caused by a flux in the current around us and even Boreus Sophotech said later that was an unexpected consequence of chaotic flows in the magnetic core. And I’m sorry about the wing collapsing, but I thought we could save power by running it through a nonlinear interrupt.”

Daphne rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling. “Men!”

Have I mentioned that I really loved Daphne?

That scene also occurs near the point where it became possible, for me at least, to trust that Things Are Not As They Seem and that It Always Seems Darkest Right Before the Dawn. In other words, in every disaster from that point on, I figured probably something unexpected was actually going on that was going to rescue the situation. This was always true, and it never again took so long for specific challenges to be met and overcome. This means that the final conflict was not as stressful (for me, anyway) than the earlier, relatively lower-stakes conflicts from the first half of the trilogy.

So. My take, now that I’ve finally finished the trilogy:

The writing: Very good. Not fantastic; at least, Wright has certain writing quirks that annoyed me, plus Phaethon’s personal style is rather florid and since we’re mostly in his pov, that’s the style in which the reader is most immersed. On the other hand, I just re-read the Honor Harrington series, so I can certainly say that as far as I’m concerned, Wright is a better writer than David Weber. Do you know, both authors sometimes use a “?!” when a character exclaims? I hate that. It is so comic-book-y. But hey, if Weber can get away with it, I can hardly declare it’s beyond the pale for Wright to do it.

The setting: Amazing. Outstanding. Highly engaging intellectually. The society of the Golden Oecumene is so advanced, in ways that are simultaneously believable and virtually impossible to imagine.

The characterization: Decent. There’s enough depth of characterization that a character reader, which I mostly am, can enjoy the story – though as I say, I strongly preferred a couple of the secondary characters to the primary protagonist.

The plot: For an astonishing proportion of the book, the reader does not know what’s going on. Sometimes the reader blatantly doesn’t know what’s going on (the early lost-memory part of the story), but later the reader is repeatedly shown one thing when actually something else is going on. This is done by frequently having the pov characters know things or believe things that aren’t true. Wright is actually playing fair with all this: clues are scattered throughout so you can see, after you actually find out what was happening, that there were indeed hints about what was really happening.

At the end, the overall plot turns out to be surprisingly tight. It’s pretty much impossible to see how tight until the end, and then suddenly Wright catches the dangling edges of all kinds of threads and weaves them back into the structure of the story. I was impressed.

The scope: Huge. This is a highly ambitious work, not just in scope, but in all kinds of ways. I believe this trilogy was Wright’s debut. That’s amazing. If there was a series award for the Hugo, something I would very much like to see, I would look for something like this to nominate.

The themes: Thoroughly appealing. Of central importance are ideas about personal responsibility, duty vs freedom, the breaking of stagnation, and the importance of stories (“It’s tales that make the difference. Facts kill; but it is myths that people give their lives for.”).

The utopia: Remember, I read this because of our earlier discussion about utopias. Well, I liked Phaeton’s last comment about utopias:

Diomedes leaned back and inspected his friend. “Hmm. My intuition tells me you are still uneasy.”

Phaethon sighed. “I am getting tired of always acting on blind faith. When I do not have gaps in my memory, I have gaps in my knowledge. I always seem to be forced to trust that either my old self or some Sophotech has thought out the details of what I am about to do, and has already arranged everything to come out right – it is a childish way to behave. I am tired of being a child.”

Diomedes made his eyes crinkle up with a smile. “You are so impatient to leave this ‘utopia?’”

“It was never really a utopia. It is a good system. Maybe the best system. But in reality, everything has a cost. The cost of living in a system with fairly benevolent giant superintellects, frankly, is that you have to live as I have done. Blindly.”

Living in the Golden Oecumene seems so complex in, well, in scary ways. But I have to say . . . it is pretty close to being a utopia for most of the people who live in it, at least during the Golden Age. Not that everybody’s happy, of course. But then, if people couldn’t choose to be unhappy, it’d be a lot less utopian.

The ideal reader: In order to be engaged by this trilogy, I think the reader has to enjoy complicated, ornate, nonstandard settings; technological extrapolation; and exposition. I think plot readers are going to like it better than character readers.

I think that readers who particularly enjoy Kim Stanley Robinson should give The Golden Age trilogy a try. Robinson is the better writer – in particularly, a lot of his description and exposition reads like poetry – but then, Robinson is an outstanding writer who’s been at it a lot longer.

This trilogy also makes me think of stories like Ringworld by Larry Niven and the Gaian trilogy by John Varley. I would also actually be very curious to know what readers who love Ancillary Justice would make of The Golden Age trilogy, because despite the differences between the two works, in some ways I think they are doing similar things.

If you’ve read The Golden Age, what else would you consider similar?

Now I need to read The Player of Games to compare that utopia with this one …

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9 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The Golden Age trilogy by John C Wright”

  1. Your final verdict is pretty close to what I thought it would be. I admit to some relief: I hadn’t realized the increasingly-terrible situations of the first book would affect you as much as they did.
    Yes, plot above characterization (which I would agree was decent but not exceptional). Setting even more than plot, really — KSR is pretty good at SF settings, but honestly Wright leaves him in the dust. As long as you’re an SF fan, that is: I’m pretty sure a reader without significant SF familiarity would bounce *hard* off the first chapters.
    That quote toward the end makes the Golden Oecumene even more direclty comparable to Banks’ Culture than I had thought, as you will see.

  2. I was glad I went on with it! I came pretty close to just stopping.

    Yes, Wright reached WAY farther into the future and extrapolated A LOT more than KSR. I imagine most readers who don’t really read SF would bounce off both . . . but yeah, harder off Wright’s trilogy!

  3. I haven’t read it, but my husband has, so I passed your question on to him. He said Wright is pretty much in a class by himself. Then added, A.E. Van Vogt as a possibility for being like. And that Wright had written in VV’s universe in such a way that it struck my husband as a seamless ( ahem.. nods to the textile post below) continuation.

    I keep thinking I ought to try Wright but there’s always been something else calling louder from the pile.

  4. Van Vogt is yet another older writer whose work I never tried, or not aside from The Weapons Shops stories.

    So far I am far, far more impressed with Wright’s future than the future Banks is showing us in The Player of Games. But I’ve only just started the latter, so we’ll see.

  5. Wright’s best work is “Awake in the Night Land”. If you think his writing was good here, oh man, you’re in for a treat with that book.

    The first novella in that anthology is one of the best things I’ve ever read.

    The final line is the greatest final line of any book I’ve ever read.

    It’s a masterpiece.

    “The Book of Feasts and Seasons” has some gems in it too, particularly “Pale Realms of Shade”, which is one of the best things Wright has ever written.

  6. I’ve got the first book of Count to a Trillion on my TBR shelves — and I’m definitely looking forward to it more after reading The Golden Age trilogy.

  7. I think I’ve read almost everything Wright’s written, and I agree with M the C. Especially if you are a character reader, I think you’ll want to check those out. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Count to a Trillion series a lot, but Awake in the Night Land and Pale Realms of Shade approach very nearly to the sublime.

  8. Well, I really loved Pale Realms of Shade, so I think I probably should take your advice and find Awake in the Night Land, too.

  9. Yes, Awake in the Night Lands, especially The Last of All Suns, is absolutely fantastic! Easily my favorite sci-fi of the last decade.

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