Philosophical SF armed with ray guns

A reviewer who is kind to my book. Yeah for me!


This novel forms the conclusion to the trilogy begun in The Golden Age (2002) and continued in The Phoenix Exultant (2003). We have watched our hero, Phaethon of Radamanth, as he has struggled against the enmity and censure of the vast and complex society—the Oecumene—that inhabits every niche of a far-future solar system. He has fought to regain lost memories and possessions, not the least of which is his unique 100-kilometer-long starship, the Phoenix Exultant, undergoing strange odysseys across the planets and virtual environments of his byzantine age. Additionally, he has had to fight the ploys of an invader from the Silent Oecumene, the lone human colony at Cygnus X-1, which long ago went rogue. As this last book opens, Phaethon is finally in possession of his ship. But the nominal owner is still a Neptunian named Neoptolemous. In orbit around Neptune, Phaethon is forced to allow Neoptolemous aboard. But the Neptunian proves to be merely a shell harboring the mind of a Silent Oecumene agent, Xenophon.
Discovered and held captive by Phaethon, Xenophon reveals much new information about the Silent Oecumene. Historical events in the far-off colony gain Phaethon’s sympathies, and he opens his own armor to Xenophon’s probes in a trustful exchange. But the invader suddenly discloses his true colors and attempts to take over Phaethon’s ship. An enormous battle ensues, which is won by Phaethon only thanks to the appearance of a hidden ally.
Phaethon and his triumphant friend discover that Xenophon is not without allies of his own in the solar system. The traitor has been beaming messages to a confederate—who hides in the heart of the sun! Phaethon’s ship is the only vessel that can possibly withstand passage into the sun to confront the enemy, and he sets out to do just that, stopping to pick up his beloved, Daphne Tercius. Together, the two lovers dip deep into the solar body to confront the Nothing Sophotech, the Silent Oecumene AI that has been behind everything. A titanic struggle for the souls of two empires and the future of all sentience follows, in parallel with preparations for the once-a-millennium ritual known as the Transcendence, when all sentients are subsumed in a single mind. Will even the Nothing Sophotech take part in the Transcendence, or will the transformative celebration end in chaos and ruination?

Like an Olaf Stapledon novel written by E.E. Smith (or Smith written by Stapledon), Wright’s trilogy combines massive amounts of hard-core philosophical speculation—involving billions of years of history, right up to the Tiplerian Omega Point—with mind-blowing super-science action. In order to fully appreciate this unique voice, you must master a kind of cognitive dissonance, whereby one moment you can be engrossed in parsing passages such as “When dealing with mankind, [the Sophotechs] must decide either to keep their integrity intact, or act with indifference to whether or not the ills afflicting men are increased by their actions. That indifference is incompatible, by definition, with benevolence.” And then, in practically the next paragraph, you’ll encounter these old-fashioned space-opera heroics: “The armada opened fire. Energy rays of unknown composition lanced from ships and boats above, bounding harmlessly from the sleek sides of the Phoenix Exultant. Like spotlights, the beams fled along her gleaming sides, glinting from golden superstructures, flashing from the prow, sliding from the hull, dancing across the communication blisters at the prow.” Between these two modes of writing—the aloofly intellectual, puzzle-solving, deep-thinking mode and the kick-out-the-jams, blow-everything-to-hell mode—there’s seldom a dull minute in Wright’s hybridized SF.
Nor does Wright neglect the emotional side of his tale. The reconciliation between Phaethon and his father Helion is touching, as is Phaethon’s realization that he truly loves Daphne Tercius and not the original Daphne she was cloned from. (This is an intensively recomplicated book, where identities and motivations are infinitely mutable.) Even the plight of the evil Nothing Sophotech and the citizens of the Silent Oecumene evokes pity. Moreover, while Phaethon can be a bit of a stuffed shirt, there’s plenty of humor supplied by Daphne’s irreverent dialogue and by the gruff nature of Atkins, the Oecumene’s only soldier, a kind of one-man army. (Another type of humor is to be found in Wright’s sly criticism of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics in Chapter 3.)
The overall effect of Wright’s immensely convoluted tale of a future where godlike powers are the common birthright of every individual is to make the reader feel she is truly witnessing the cataclysmic upheavals of an old exotic culture where many of the premises we take for granted have been swept away. In this, Wright harks after one of his models, Jack Vance, and his Dying Earth books. But in his search for transcendence and glory, Phaethon embodies values and aspirations as eternal as humanity, and it’s this link to our own dreams that carries us through some of the more abstruse moments in this intriguingly dense foray into the fate of sentience in the face of the universe’s disdain.