Candygram For Mr. Reynolds

Frequent readers may recall that I have pushed this book, “The Golden Age”, on you once before. In belated honor of Glenn Reynolds birthday, I feel that one more time wouldn’t be inappropriate. Matter of fact, I’m recommending the whole damn trilogy.
The subject matter concerns topics of interest to him. Plus, these may possibly be the best science fiction novels ever written by a lawyer. Read these books, Professor!

My earlier post promised some excerpts from the book itself. Okay, coming right up. This following snippet is on the whimsical side, as our hero finds himself blasting along in midair thousands of feet up, without a vehicle. Even eighty thousand plus years in the future, that’s not normal. He calls home seeking an explanation. Bear in mind that this civilization relies to an extraordinary degree on virtual reality and its half-and-half cousin consensus reality. What a citizen of the “Golden Oecumene” perceives is largely a matter of choice on his or her part. Reality and special effects can be seamlessly merged.

Phaethon put in a call to his mansion. “Rhadamanthus! Rhadamanthus! I know the Silver-gray protocols don’t let you manifest in a way that jars the scenery; but this is an emergency. Something odd happened to me this night; I need your help to find the answers. His sensorium signaled to admit a new object. A moment later, out of the high clouds behind him, surrounded with a roaring engine noise, a small black shape darted on wings. It did a snap-roll and came closer, till it paralleled Phaethon’s plunging descent. It was a penguin wearing bow tie, aviator goggles, and a long white scarf. The penguin’s stubby wings were spread, its bullet head thrown back, its little beak cutting the air. A contrail of vapor issued from its little webbed feet. “Oh come now Rhadamanthus! This blends?!” The penguin cocked its head. “It is a bird, young master.” “Realistic images or none at all! That’s the motto of our manor. Penguins do not fly!” “Hmm. I hate to say it young master, but neither do young men” “But--a contrail--?” “Ah, sir, you may check my math if you like, but a penguin-shaped object traveling at this speed through this atmosphere—“ Phaethon interrupted. “Be realistic!” “If the young master would care to look behind himself, I think he will see he has a condensation trail not unlike my own—“ “Good heavens!” Phaethon checked his sense filter again. The penguin and its contrail were illusions, existing only in mentality. But Phaethon’s contrail was a real object. “How am I doing this? Flying without a suit, I mean.” He checked the properties value on his sense filter again. It was real. “If master would care to direct his attention upward, in the extremely high frequency range?…” “I see a latticework of energy lines across the sky, from horizon to horizon…A levitation array? But the scale is grandiose. It extends for miles. Ah…hundreds of miles. Was this all built last night?” “It was constructed in orbit and lowered into place, young master. A surprise for the guests!” The penguin pointed with a stubby black wing. (Technical exposition omitted) “I’m impressed. But you sound sort of nasal, Rhadamanthus, even for a penguin.” “It saddens me to see a way of life I like pass on, even though I am not myself alive. The new ease of air transport may decrease the advantages of telepresentation, and, over the next four centuries, reduce the prestige of the various manorial and cryptic ways of life. Including mansions like me. Heh. …”

For the context impervious, a Sophotech is an Artificial Intelligence, usually of much greater than human capacity. Like the immensely capable “Minds” in Iain Banks’s stories of “The Culture”, the Sophotechs are the real players in this society, restrained from trampling on mere humans only by their own ethics and inherent humaneness. Even so, most of them are preoccupied with high rpm navel-gazing.

Many of the Sophotechs that had no names and no personalities among the human population would remember, later…These cold, remote beings had no other interest in humanity or human things, regarded all of human civilization as the toy, the museum piece, or the playthings of Earthmind and Aurelian, chess-loving War-mind and sentimental Nebuchadnezzar, and young impulsive Harrier.

Most human beings in these stories consider the sophotechs friends and teachers, rather like well treated dogs might regard humans. But there are a few wolves left in the pack…

“Aren’t men right to fear machines which can perform all tasks men can do, artistic, intellectual, technical, a thousand or a million times better than they can do? Men become redundant.”

Thank you, Drs. Kass and Fukuyama. The rebuttal takes us into economic territory, specifically the theory of Comparative Advantage. I first learned of it from Milton Friedman, who presented it in terms of third world tee-shirt manufacture. Some of you may know it as the Martha Stewart Hires a Typist scenario. (She can type faster than anyone alive. She’s Martha Stewart. She can do anything! So why would she need to hire a typist?)

….”Efficiency does not harm the inefficient. Quite the opposite. That is simply not the way it works. Take me for example…Any midlevel Sophotech could have written in one second the architecture it takes me, even with my implants, an hour to compose. But if, in that one second of time, that Sophotech can produce something more valuable—exploring the depth of abstract mathematics, or inventing a new scientific miracle, anything at all (provided that it will earn more in that second than I earn in an hour)—then the competition is not making me redundant. The Sophotech still needs me and receives the benefit of my labor. Since I am going to get the benefit of every new invention and new miracle put out on the market, I want to free up as many of those seconds of Sophotech time as my humble labor can do. And I get the lion’s share of the benefit from the swap. I only save him a second of time; he creates wonder upon wonder for me…”

I hope any bright kids reading these books can internalize these relatively painless lessons. Heinlein did it for my generation. We should keep up the tradition. Wright also tackles the unfortunate notion of life without money. But hey, the Federation gave up money! And they’re a Utopia! Just don’t ask any nosy questions about all that Latinum floating around the frontier.

“No civilization can exist without money. Even one in which energy is as cheap and free as air on Earth, would still have some needs and desires which some people can fulfill better than others. An entertainment industry, if nothing else. Whatever efforts—if any—these productive people make, above and beyond that which their own idle pastimes incline them to make, will be motivated by gifts or barter bestowed by others eager for their services. Whatever barter keeps its value best over time stays in demand, and is portable, recognizable, divisable, will become their money. No matter what they call it, no matter what form it takes, whether cowry shells or gold or grams of anti-matter, it will be money. Even Sophotechs use standardized computer seconds to prioritize distributions of system resources among themselves. As long as men value each other, admire each other, need each other, there will be money.”
Diomedes said, “And if all men live in isolation? Surrounded by nothing but computer-generated dreams, pleasant fictions, and flatteries? And their every desire is satisfied by electronic illusions which create in their brains the sensations of satisfaction without the substance? What need have men to value other men then?”
“Men who value their own lives would not live that way.”

Too right. Life is not a dream.

One of the reviewers on Amazon remarked that this couldn’t possibly be a libertarian utopia because the computers ran the whole show. People were just pets. Hmmm.

”Why couldn’t I be prevented from making such a foolish agreement in the first place?”
You are free to join the Orthomnemonicist School, which permits no memory alterations except anti-senility storage, or join the primitivists, who permit none at all.”
“You know what I mean. You Sophotechs are smarter than I am; why did you let me do such a foolish thing?”
“We answer every question our resources and instruction parameters allow; we are more than happy to advise you, when and if we are asked.”
“That’s not what I’m thinking of, and you know it.”
“You are thinking we should use force to defend you against yourself against your will? That is hardly a thought worth thinking, sir. Your life has exactly the value you yourself place on it. It is yours to damage or ruin as you wish….If we were to overrule your ownership of your own life, your life, would, in effect, become our property, and you, in effect, would become merely the custodian or trustee of that life. Do you think you would value it more in such a case, or less? And if you valued it less, would you not take greater risks and behave more self-destructively? If, on the other hand, each man’s life is his own, he may experiment freely, risking only what is his, till he find his best happiness.”
“I see the results of failed experiments all around us, in these cylinders. I see wasted lives, and people trapped in mind sets and life forms that lead nowhere.”
“While life continues, evolution and experimentation must also. The pain and risk of failure cannot be eliminated. The most we can do is maximize human freedom, so that no man is forced to pay for another man’s mistakes, so that the pain of failure falls only on he who risks it. And you do not know which ways of life lead nowhere. Even we Sophotechs do not know where all paths lead.”
“How benevolent of you! We will always be free to be stupid.”
“Cherish that freedom, young master; it is basic to all others.”

Sounds pretty libertarian to me. There will always be people who are richer, smarter, more powerful than I am. If they respect my rights, how am I worse off? Lowered morale? Please. The politics of envy are despicable.

These few brief excerpts could easily get out of hand. The books have so many good parts, it really is hard for me to stop dragging out my favorites. If I had the space and you had the patience, I would trot out the various forms of mental perversion available to Wright’s neurotechnic society, like for instance, convincing yourself with any level of detail required that you are a consummate creative genius, a DaVinci, loved by all. Or Phaethon’s wonderful ship, the “Phoenix Exultant”, or the different human neuroforms and their modes of perception, or the Red Manorials who, shunning the clarity of Silver-Gray thought, live their lives in a quivering, amped-up state of emotional excess, rather like living their lives in a Regency Romance Novel. Brrr.

But we don’t have that time. So I’ll choose just one more thin mint, in honor of the Professor’s birthday and occupation. The Computer and his Boy have their day in Court.

The Chamber of the Curia was austere…Unadorned square silver pillars held up a black dome. In the center of the dome, at the highest point of the ceiling, a wide lens of crystal supported the pool overhead. Light from the world above fell through the water to form trembling nets and webs across the floor. The floor itself was inscribed with a mosaic in the data-pattern mode, representing the entire pattern of the Curia case law. At the center, small icons representing constitutional principles sent out lines to each case in which they were quoted; bright lines for controlling precedent, dim lines for dissenting opinions or dicta. Each case quoted in a later case sent out additional lines, till the concentric circles of floor icons were meshed in a complex network. The jest of the architect was clear to Phaethon. The floor mosaic was meant to represent the fixed immutability of the law; but the play of light from the pool above made it seem to ripple and sway and change with each little breeze. Above the floor, not touching it, without sound or motion, hovered three massive cubes of black material.

These cubes were the manifestations of the judges. The cube shape symbolized the solidity and implacable majesty of the law. Their high position showed they were above emotionalism or earthly appeals…
Once, long ago, these had been men. Now, recorded into an electrophotonic matrix, they were without passion or favoritism, and their most secret thoughts were open to review and scrutiny should any charge of unfairness or prejudice ever be brought against them.
The Never-First Schools always urged that the Judges should change from election to election and poll to poll, as did the members of the Parliament. The more traditional schools, however, always argued that, in order for the law to be fair, reasonable men must be able to predict how it will be enforced, so as to be able to know what is and is not legal. Having sat on the bench for 7,400 years, the minds of the Curia were, like the approach of glaciers, like the ponderous motions of the outer planets, very predictable indeed.

A voice radiated from the central cube:”The Court is now in session. We note that the counselor for the purported beneficiary has chosen to manifest itself as an armored penguin. We remind the counselor of the penalties attaching to contempt of Court. Does the counselor require a recess or any extra channels to array itself more presentably?”

“No, Your Lordship.” The image of Rhadamanthus faded, and, fitting into the prevailing aesthetic, the penguin turned into a large green cone.

Phaethon eyed the cone dubiously. “Oh, much better…” he muttered.

“Order in the Court!” radiated the cube on the left.

posted by Justin on 08.29.04 at 12:56 AM


I love these books. Best reading experience I've had so far this decade. I'm re-reading them right now.

But they do show some signs of being hastilly rewritten or edited.

Problem: How far away is Cygnus X1? The text sometimes gives it as 1000 lightyears, and sometimes 10,000. In at least one instance it gives both values in the same paragraph. (I looked it up in the NASA database, it's 14,000)

Much of the plot depends on travel and communication between the Silent Oecumene at Cygnus X1 and the Golden Oecumene. This works for 1000 lightyears, but runs into serious problems if it's 10,000. Orpheus invented noumenal immortality roughly 8000 years before the current era. Some of the oldest individual characters, such as Helion aren't much older than that. Phaeton is 4000 years old. (Some of the compositions may be much older, the time scale of the 4th, 5th and 6th mental structures isn't really specified. I also get the impression that the action takes place roughly 70,000 years in the future, but I've seen an interview with John C. Wright where he claims it's 500,000)

The Silent Oecumene is actually in some sort of communication with the Golden Oecumene, Phaeton set up a monitoring station to intercept any messages from it, including the final broadcast, and the Nothing at Cygnus X1 was able to respond to events at the Golden Oecumene by creating the Nothing black hole it sent to disrupt Phaeton's project. This works if the distance is 1000 lightyears, a delay of 1000 years in a 4000 life is equivalent to a few decades out of a 70 year span - long but feasible. It doesn't work if it's 10,000. Any signals travelling between oecumenes will take longer than the 7th mental structure, noumenal immortality and almost all individuals have been sround.

What works for me is the assume that it all takes place in an alternative universe where Cygnus X1 is 1000 lightyears away. !0000 is a misprint.

Another point; It's clearly stated that the Nothing active in the Golden Oecumene is the simplest, stupidist possible version. Otherwise the original Nothing would have seen it as competition, and destroyed it. But it took the entire Trascendence, the combined mental abilties of every sophotech, composition and individual in the Golden Oecumene to defeat it. The Golden Oecumene is going to be in one hell of a fight when they meet the Silent Oecumene directly.

Any thoughts?

Man Mountain Molehill   ·  August 29, 2004 6:05 PM

I think I better start reading science fiction fast! Otherwise, I'll look like an illiterate idiot at my own blog!

(Seriously Justin, I am very glad to have the benefit of your well-read mind here. AND the new readers you're attracting!)

Eric Scheie   ·  August 30, 2004 9:33 AM

I have to agree with Man Mountain Molehill - they were lots'o fun and needed editing badly, as opposed to being badly edited.

John Donigan   ·  August 31, 2004 12:14 AM

I always cut an author a little slack when he or she delivers the goods. Also, I prefer to talk about the good aspects only, when urging people to check something out. That being said, Mr. Molehill is entirely correct about the timing being off. A 20,000 year question response cycle doesn't allow the book to work. So I ignored it.
Mr Wright, were we to challege him on the point, would probably point out that it is a novel of ideas, not a celestial navigation text. True enough, but my inner obsessive-compulsive was irked. I still think they're a great read.

J. Case   ·  September 3, 2004 9:22 PM

Mr Wright, were you to challege him on the point, would confess that he dropped a decimal point on the distance to Cygnus X-1, but the error was not noticed until the first volume of the trilogy had already been published.

In the second and third volumes, your humble author combed through the pages, looking for references to the time and distances involved, trying to correct them; but by that point, the text had already stated Helion's age, and it is roughly a tenth of what it should be.

If the trilogy ever goes into reprinting, perhaps the error can be corrected.

Your inner compulsive is right to be irked, as is my inner (and outer) writer.

Imagine my annoyence at reviewers who find purely imaginary flaws in my work (one reviewer somehow concluded that Phaethon was a Stalin), but never mention a whopping mistake like this one! Jeez. You're a better reader than they are.

John C. Wright   ·  September 10, 2004 12:03 PM

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