The Golden Age by John C. Wright was originally published in 2002 by TOR and was Wright’s first novel. Since then he’s gone on to write two sequels to The Golden Age, as well as Orphans of Chaos, nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award. I’m a little slow catching up with the new wave of SF authors, but The Golden Age was worth the wait.
Wright’s story is set in a future society so advanced that no-one can die. Humanity has reached the pinnacle of its evolution, but has now begun to stagnate; if people can live forever, why should they make progress now? Phaethon has lived this way all his life, or so he thinks. But when a stranger accuses him of being an imposter, Phaethon begins a journey to discover who he truly is – and risks losing his very place in society.
TGA echoes the works of Clarke, Vance and other authors, as well as the Greek myth (the protagonist’s name references Phaethon, who stole his father’s [Helios] chariot and rode it too close to the Earth), but at its heart is the theme of identity. Phaethon’s journey of self-discovery leads him to the heart of the Golden Ocrumene itself, and to a secret he had agreed to forget in order for society to remain at peace. Can Phaethon truly be whole, when so much of his life has been taken away? Is he even the same person, without those memories? Wright handles these thoughts deftly, balancing textured characters with his science.
What’s really striking about TGA is the kaleideskope of Wright’s future society. It’s vivid, beautiful and terrifying all at once; complex, but real. Equally impressive is how Wright’s work sparkles with ideas on every page; there’s literally something new, something fresh from beginning to end. And Wright’s prose is beautiful as well, almost lyrical. He uses humour and irony to underscore his themes and nothing feels forced, a testament to how good a writer John C. Wright really is.
I can’t recommended The Golden Age highly enough. It’s not just a great novel, it’s the best debut I’ve ever read. It might not be for everyone, but if you like science fiction that makes you think, definitely check it out. Right now, I’m going to see if I can find the sequels!