The Phoenix Exultant (Golden Age #2) – John C Wright (2003)
‘The verve of SF’s golden age writers is reborn in The Phoenix Exultant, a grand and stirring fulfilment of the promise shown in The Golden Age that confirms John c Wright as a bright new star of science fiction.
Phaethon of Radamanthus House has been exiled, his ship confiscated. He embarks upon a quest across the transformed solar system among humans, intelligent machines, and bizarre life forms. For the first time in his centuries-long life, he must look reality in the face, without a layer of computer-applied glamour.
Now Phaethon discovers the tarnished underbelly of the shining utopia he took for granted, as he is forced to deal with the only people who can do business, or even talk, with him, his fellow exiles.
Somehow, with or without their help, he must recover his memory, regain his place in society, and move that society away from stagnation. That, he hopes to do, by reclaiming his magnificent ship, the Phoenix Exultant, and flying her to the stars.’
Blurb from the October 2003 Tor paperback edition
In this, the second volume of ‘The Golden Age’ Wright continues his tour-de-force widescreen baroque epic of a future civilisation where being human is as vague a concept as one could possibly imagine. Immortality is available to all, since back-up copies of one’s mind and memories can be stored in case of fatal accident, although even the concept of a personality defined by one’s memories becomes a grey area in Wright’s world since memories can be edited (in some cases without one even knowing) which makes the definition of reality itself somewhat hazy.
Many beings have opted for Humodification, in which their bodies (and/or minds) have been changed or augmented beyond recognition. Others exist in gestalt form, sharing their minds with a myriad of others as a single consciousness.
Our hero Phaethon’s ship has been confiscated and he has been exiled from the Oecumene (as the civilisation is known) and is being ignored by all on pain of them suffering the same fate. He has been advised by one of the AIs of the civilisation to head for Ceylon, an island inhabited by exiles, which is ruled quite literally with an iron hand by a cyborg called Ironjoy.
The plot twists and turns, baffling and dazzling the reader with its red herrings, its gloriously realised technologies and the complex logical possibilities inherent in a world where one cannot trust one’s own memories.
The characters of Daphne and Atkins (who is a single immortal embodiment of the armed forces) return in order to aid Phaethon in his quest to a) prove that an insidious intelligence from beyond our Solar System has invaded the Oecumene, b) reclaim his fabulous ship ‘The Phoenix Exultant’ and c) save the Universe.
Apart from anything else, the text is laced with a sly humour, and one cannot help but wish to exist in this strange, multi-layered culture at once light years away from our own experiences and yet, in essence, very similar.