"this fledgling century's most important new SF talent" -Publishers Weekly
Back to the book.
With the publication of GOLDEN AGE, John C. Wright is introduced to the Science Fiction reading public with his first novel. He has published shorter works in Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, one of which was selected to appear in Year's Best SF 3 edited by David G. Hartwell for 1997. Two additional novels, PHOENIX EXULTANT (sf) and LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS (fantasy) are due for publication in 2003 by Tor Books.
John C. Wright is a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor. He presently lives in Virginia, in fairy-tale-like happiness with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their two noisy children, Orville and Wilbur Wright.
THE GOLDEN AGE is a novel set tens of millions of years in the future, when the science of man has achieved an unparalleled triumph, and all the evils and wars of the previous aeons are at rest. Only one man, Phaethon, still dreams of doing deeds of renown without peer, even if he must upset the careful utopia of his wealthy and glorious civilization.[Be sure to see also the interview with Nick Gevers of Locus Magazine.]
Q: Are you pleased with the critical reception your book has received?
A: Pleased and surprised. I seem to have had the good luck to draw reviewers whose taste in books is the same as mine. Now, if the buying public has people in it who like the books I like, too, then I'll be in business.
Q: What is the premise of your novel?
A: My ambition was to set a science fiction book in as far into the future as I could imagine, while not assuming anything presently known to be impossible. There is no time travel or faster-than-light drive in my future, for example.
However, I assumed advances in neuropsychology and cybernetics. I assume far- future science would discover how to read, edit, transmit, and copy brain information as easily as we now-a-days edit computer information.
So, the human mind could remake itself to any desired specification, increasing intelligence, creativity, memory, and conscience; or make artificial minds as mentally and morally alert as need be. Crimes would be easy to solve, if thoughts could be read for evidence; men would be as good as immortal, if perfect copies of any mind, memory and personality could be restored from a backup.
Q: No, I meant, what is the plot about?
A: The main character is named Phaethon. He thinks he is famous and rich, but accidentally finds out his memories were rewritten. His wife is not who he thinks she is, and his father may or may not be dead. He is penniless, hated and shunned by a society for some offense he does not remember committing.
However, he knows that this memory lapse was something he did by himself to himself. He even still has a backup copy of his original memories, his real self. The catch is, that if he puts the original memories back into himself, he will be punished for whatever it was that his previous version of himself did. As long as he stays in ignorance, he will be fine.
Naturally, being a hero, he cannot let the matter rest.
Q: I notice many of your characters have mythical names.
A: Because the novel takes place so far in the future, I had to assume that there were antiquarians who still remembered and admired our present way of life; sort of like SCA members, or Civil War re-enactors.
By telling the tale through the eyes of people who were basically like modern-day man, I could show the strangeness and wonder of the distant future, without baffling my readers entirely.
My antiquarians name themselves after mythical figures to try to remind themselves what it is in the spirit of man that makes us human. Then, as now, it takes an act of will to remain human. My assumption is that it will be easier to become inhuman when technology gives us greater ability to remake ourselves.
I am also assuming that the powers of our remote posterity will seem as godlike to us, as our present abilities to fly to the moon, or to drop an ICBM and consume whole cities with fire and brimstone, would have seemed to our ancestors. So I name a character who is attempting to re-engineer the core of the sun after Helion, the Titan of the sun, for example.
Q: What writers influenced your novel?
A: Whom am I copying, do you mean?
Q: Well, I would not have phrased it that way....
A: Jack Vance, mostly. I wish I could copy him more closely; his plots are tight, his mysteries are honest puzzles, and his characters are drawn with a few, elegant strokes of the pen, crisp and clear.
After him, Gene Wolfe is an unparalleled master of the language. His mysteries, I am ashamed to admit, are too obscure for me to follow; but his characterizations are deep and complex, and the sense of strangeness and awe he evokes I have seen in no other writer.
A.E. van Vogt, despite any flaws he might have as a stylist, is who captures for me the sense of wonder that the grand of tradition of space opera embraces. I am trying to write a space opera in his style, so I never have a super-starship ten kilometers long when a ship one hundred kilometers long will do; I never blow up a city when I can blow up a planet.
But I owe my greatest debt, of course, to Olaf Stapledon. My book is a shameless rip-off of the ideas and themes in his master-work LAST AND FIRST MEN. Of course, my ideas of law and economics are the opposite of Mr. Stapledon's, and so my utopia has in it everything he would leave out of his.
Q: How are you the opposite of Stapledon?
A: He proposes a communist utopia, blissfully without private property. I propose a libertarian utopia, blissfully without public property.
Q: Is the Golden Age depicted in your novel a Utopia?
A: Only compared to our present age. My story has fraud and kidnapping and attempted murder, secrecy and deceptions and espionage and sabotage, as well as crimes for which we do not have names, such mind-rape and mnemonic abductions. So it is not so utopian as to lack all drama.
But there are no mass-murders, no death camps, no race bigotry, no hate-mongers, and, for that matter, no famine, no disease, no insanity, and no necessary limit to lifespan; I am proposing a government so unobtrusive and so honest that few citizens even realize it exists; the social organization in the Golden Age is entirely voluntary.
Unlike the utopias of the socialist writers in the 1920's and 1960's, I assume that there is private property, rule of law, and individual freedom, and at least one soldier still ready to stand to arms to defend those freedoms, even if he is ignored and despised by an ungrateful society.
Q: Is this Atkins?
A: The last soldier in paradise. Yes. He is the other major character aside from Phaethon.
Q: Who is he named after?
A: The name comes from a Kipling poem, Tommy Atkins, which laments the dishonor in which plain soldiers are held until such time as we need them. I figured there would not be a Utopia, now or ever, unless there was at least one man ready to bleed and die for it.
Q: Do you actually think a utopia such as you predict is possible?
A: Well, I will remind you that I am an entertainer, not a fortune-teller. My job is to amuse the reader. My job is not to predict the future. However, in order to make my tall tale feasible, I had to set it very far in the future.
Do I think the perfectly free, perfectly honest society will evolve within the next ten or one hundred years? Certainly not. Within the next thousand or ten thousand? Highly doubtful. Too many inevitable facts of human existence militate against it.
I set my story several million years in the future, after the human race has gone through five additional periods of mental evolution, each change as significant as those triggered by the discovery of agriculture, or the invention of written language, or the scientific method.
Q: You have a future society that is run entirely by vast machine intelligences. Doesn't having these godlike super-minds make the presence of merely human characters lack, well, a little bit of scope and drama?
A: Not necessarily. The presence of the Olympian gods on the plains of Troy does not make the human characters in the Iliad any less human. Not that I am comparing my humble works to the greatest poet in the West, I am only saying there is a long tradition of superhuman characters in myth and fantasy and science fiction. Maybe I should have used the example of Mentor of Arisia from E.E.Doc Smith's Lensmen series.
Q: Why wouldn't the supercomputers just end up running things to suit themselves?
A: I can only answer that by asking, what kind of engineer would build artificial minds to be mad if he could build them to be sane? Every time I see a story where the thinking machines are murderous villains, I wonder why someone would build a murderous villain. I wonder whether the engineers who built Colossus or Skynet or HAL 9000 did any stress testing.
Besides, I see no inevitable reason why intelligent beings, super-intelligent beings, and hyper-super-intelligent beings cannot live together in reasonable harmony: quite the opposite. It is a rule of economics, a law of nature, so to speak, that cooperation is more mutually advantageous than mutual destruction. All you need is basic agreement on basic ground rules....
Q: Still, some readers might see your story as a little pessimistic.
A: On the contrary. The society I depict has splendors we can hardly imagine. The characters, I hope, readers will find both admirable and amusing; the good guys win and the bad guys get punished or enlightened or both.
Q: But you are assuming that there is little or no interstellar travel, not even after countless centuries? In all that span of time, we never leave our parent star? Most SF fans would regard that as a depressing future.
A: Well, remember that I am postulating no faster than light travel. While there may be robotic scientific probes to look at interesting interstellar objects, the normal assumptions of science fiction, such as a galactic Roman Empire, or even a galactic British Empire planting colonies, are hard to believe when the nearest star is eight years round-trip travel time away, even at light-speed. Nearby stars are tens or hundreds of years away.
Space is vast indeed. I can think of no trade goods so urgently desired that a multi-generation merchant ship would be able to go and return and make enough profit to pay for herself. Maybe I will think of something and have that in my next novel.
Also, I am supposing society is so peaceful and happy that the normal things which drive men to colonize far places, religious persecution, for example, competitions between nations for resources, or love of military conquest; none of these motives would be present. Happy people are satisfied people, by definition, and usually unambitious.
Q: But not your hero. He has dreams and ambitions.
A: Well, that is what makes him a hero. Heroes are not necessarily the best people to have around in a utopia.
Q: Is your book allegorical? There are certainly parallels between the absence of any interstellar travel in the Golden Age, and the absence of any interplanetary travel in our post-Apollo 17 era, except (as you say) for robot probes.
A: An inventive mind can certainly draw analogies and parallels as fancy strikes it; but my intention was not to write an allegory.
I must say, however, that I am profoundly disheartened by the lack of manned space flights to Mars or elsewhere. I live in the generation where we once had the moon and lost it.... Americans left their footprints on soil where no human being, no living thing, had ever been before, we planted our flag—and then departed.
I would be as profoundly heartened to learn that there was a modern-day Phaethon out there somewhere, who would take up the forgotten challenge, build a private space plane, and set foot on the planets and planetoids of our system, mine the asteroids, set up an orbiting hotel, or open the first Disneyland franchise on the Moon!
There is another parallel in my story, however, and a sad one, one I certainly did not intend. The beautiful Golden Age is attacked by long-forgotten and ignored zealots, whose only motive is envy of the wealth and freedom they cannot obtain; the Golden Age must come to an end, and the civilization gird herself for war which has no end in sight. In my book, unlike in real life, the villain's attempt to highjack a craft and use it in an act of horrid mass destruction is thwarted.
However, my fictional heroes face the need for war without flinching, and vow to carry it forward, no matter the cost; and I am proud to say that this actually does happen in real life, as the present mood of this country shows.
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page updated 5/8/02