Politics, which is the recourse to the use of force to organize interpersonal relationships, was unknown to the majority of the citizens of the Golden Oecumene.
There are three volumes but this is one long novel. I found it to be money and time well spent.
This is a far future tale set in what is almost a post-scarcity economy: humans have immortality thanks to mind recording; vast energy and computational resources; can tailor their sensory experiences however they wish; and can choose between living in their own invented universes, the real world, or anything in between. But the laws of economics still apply: the author realises that there is still scarcity of human effort and attention. Phaethon, the protagonist, is attempting to achieve “deeds of renown, without peer”, and it is a struggle. Says the author in an interview he gave:
There would still be rich and poor, even if the poorest of the poor were absurdly well off by our standards. No advancements can eliminate differences in the abilities of men, or the differences in how men value the abilities of their fellow man (which is what causes inequality of prices and hence of incomes).
There is artificial intelligence, the most advanced of which are self-aware computers called Sophotechs who have intelligence vastly superior to humans, and it is possible to argue that the existence of these would make humans redundant. However, from the novel:
“It is true that the Sophotechs can perform any of these operations more swiftly and more efficiently than can we. But it is also true that they cannot do everything at once, at every place at once, as cheaply as everyone wishes. There is always someone somewhere who wants some further things done, some further work accomplished. There is always someone willing to pay much less for work moderately less well done.”
The setting is the Golden Oecumene, a solar-system spanning civilisation. In the interview the author describes the depicted society as a libertarian utopia with no public property. This state of affairs has persisted for so long that characters find violence unthinkable. If there were to be violence it would be dealt with swiftly by robotic constables. There is a parliament which does very little, and a rarely used court system. Most contractual disputes are worked out by Sophotech arbitrators. Finally, there is the College of Hortators.
The name derives from ‘exhortation’. From the appendix to the novel:
Hortators, as they were called, were a response to the paradox of free government; namely, that free government is sufficiently limited in power to leave all nonviolent activities, i.e., the culture, in private hands; but that the cultural values allowing for such liberties must be maintained.
The system is a voluntary method of enforcing social norms, the purpose of which is to preserve the culture which enables all this freedom and lack of violence. Contracts contain a standard clause that voids them if either party deals with anyone shunned by the Hortators. Therefore the Hortators have the ability to effectively exhile someone from normal society. Since people voluntarily add these clauses to their contracts, the Hortators must use their power wisely or else themselves fall into disrepute. It is a neat system whose pitfalls are thoroughly explored by the plot.
You might imagine law enforcement by omnipresent robotic constables equates to a scary police state. But the constables simply prevent violence. There is no corruption because the society is so open. People freely share memories and partial simulations of their minds with each other, which makes lying in one’s dealings impractical. They feel little need for privacy because they do not fear each other in a society where it is all but impossible to cause harm to another. Apart from strict adherence to the non-aggression principle, there is tolerance for almost any lifestyle.
Instead of uniformity or warring factions, Mr. Wright has constructed a society where multiple alternate lifestyles exist in harmony. There are people with brain architectures so different that they need AI translators to communicate; there are different kinds of bodies from humans to marine animals to uploads to people who exist as ecosystems of other animals. There are different aesthetics chosen according to on one’s senses or style preferences. And there are different schools of lifestyle, such as our protagonist’s Silver-Gray school which insists on, among other things, a realistic aesthetic of real physical objects, the mental discipline of not artificially modifying one’s emotions, and Victorian manners. Technology allows for many other choices in these things, and many of these other choices are described in the novel.
While it is possible to exist purely in a simulated reality, and many do, most people live at least partly in the physical world, using telepresence in the form of mannequins or even their real bodies. But even in the real world, sense filters modify one’s perceptions according to personal taste and to aid communication. And modification of one’s own memories is common practice.
Information security given such technology is one of the themes of the novel. Mr. Wright has managed to construct a perfect world and still have an exciting plot within it. The novel opens with Phaethon enjoying his time at the millennial celebrations, but with a vague unease that something is wrong. A chance encounter with a strange old man makes him realise that he has forgotten large portions of his (several thousand years of) life. Since no-one can have forced him to erase his memories, he must have done so voluntarily. But why?
How does one tell what is real when one’s perceptions and memories may be altered? The answer is that since reality is objective, it is a matter of looking at the evidence and using reason. This is a work of rationalist fiction. There are no red-herrings. It is possible for the reader to think through and work out what is going on. There are multiple levels of deception at times as the protagonist uncovers deeper and deeper levels of truth. But it all makes sense in the end. Everything is neatly wrapped up.
Another theme is progress versus stagnation. While Phaethon is discovering his memory loss, a group of the richest people in the Oecumene are discussing the future. They want to influence things to reduce the risk of them losing their relative positions in society by avoiding progress and change. From the interview:
On the surface, the Roman and Victorian periods were times of high civilization, golden ages, and so comparisons with my invented far-future society were inevitable. Beneath the surface, I will point out that both were periods when civilization had to make a decision whether to remain true to itself, and expand, or betray itself, and decline.
The Romans chose poorly, trading Republican stoicism for Imperium, luxury and stagnation. Queen Victoria’s people chose correctly, choosing parliamentary democracy over Monarchy, and middle-class virtue over Regency corruption. The Roman choice led to the Dark Ages; the Victorian choice led to the Industrial Revolution.
The folk in my novel, and the civilization depicted there, face the same choice. If they betray the great dream that made them great, they will perish. I leave it for the reader to determine whether the author is making a comment about the times in which he also lives.
At times some characters experience the feeling of poverty, despite having great wealth. While the feeling is of relative poverty, the author and even the characters are clear about their absolute wealth. Characters are able to contemplate the horror of living in a more primitive time when people had to cope with death or being stuck in the bodies they were born in. In fact the characters of the future don’t quite comprehend our poverty. One is reduced to lighting a fire using a solar powered infra-red concentrating device, much as she imagines hunter-gatherers once did.
Importantly, the author constructs his libertarian utopia without irony. The society has problems but is not a dystopia. For example there are descriptions of people who have deliberately deluded themselves with false memories, which have caused them problems that they can not solve because they no longer believe the truth about the world. As a result they lose wealth, which can in extreme cases lead to death if they cannot afford the computing resources to run their minds. Such tragedies are lamented in the book, but it is acknowledged that these people suffer as a result of their own freely made bad choices, and that resorting to violence to stop them from making such choices is a solution worse than the problem.
The author is an atheist turned Catholic for reasons I have not tried to understand. I worried about how this would affect the writing, but I detected nothing. There may well be Christian moral messages but since the moral messages in the book are compatible with libertarianism, there is nothing I found any complaint with.
All in all, this is a story rich in ideas, set in a consistent and well thought out universe. Its plot, which I have deliberately not detailed, concerns civilisation-changing events caused by the grand deeds of individuals. It is a long novel but the pacing is right. Enough words are spent lingering over details, arguments and reasoning, the writing erudite and humorous, but not too many words: events happen; the plot shifts along.
Best of all, the books are riddled with ‘Samizdata quote of the day’ material. Some examples.
some, it was said, programmed the nanomachines floating in their cell nuclei to produce, as years passed, the wrinkled skin, hair defects, osteoarthritis, and general physical decay that figured so prominently in ancient literature, poems, and interactives. Phaethon wondered in horror what could prompt a man to indulge in such slow and deliberate self-mutilation.
Mass-minds were the last refuge, in modern times, of that type of person who would have, in earlier eras, turned to collectivist political or religious movements, and drowned their individuality in mobs, in mindless conformity, in pious fads and pious frauds.
On greed, selfishness and pride:
“In the better-loved tales, something else prevails besides greed and selfishness and pride!”
“The three qualities you mention, sir, to call them by their proper names—ambition, independence, and self-esteem-always figured quite prominently in the stories I loved in my youth, I can assure you of that. Perhaps you make a public show, for reasons about which I do not care to speculate, of admiring the opposite qualities: sloth, sheepish conformity, and self-loathing.”
“Truth does not become more or less true, whether those who know it are many or few. And it has never been masses or mobs who shaped destiny but single individuals, visionaries, innovators…”
“No one is in the habit of watching what they say, these days. Who said that an unarmed society was a rude society?”
…for just a moment, he had thought that the government and the society of the Golden Oecumene was capable of the type of mean, low, and deceptive practices which the barbarian governments of primitive and unenlightened ages had practiced throughout all time. A time now long past…
More on economics:
“Efficiency does not harm the inefficient. Quite the opposite. That is simply not the way it works. […] Machines don’t make us redundant; they increase our efficiency in every way.”
“But I would not do everything the law allows, not things I thought were wrong; and you your whole life have said that people ought to avoid what’s wrong and ugly and base and inhuman, whether it’s legally allowed or not.”
On moral relativism:
“It is true that we are about to engage in acts of mass murder… But your distaste for these things is merely part of the widespread program of thought control imposed upon you by your Sophotechs! It is they who told you that there is an absolute right and wrong, and objective measure of good and evil. […] You merely have an opinion that mass murder and destruction is bad because of your social conditioning. It is irrelevant.”
“Rebellion requires conviction. Once conviction is destroyed, slavery is welcomed and freedom is feared. To destroy conviction, all it takes is a philosophy like the one I heard Ao Varmatyr telling me.”
Finally, from the appendix, on limited government:
The severely limited powers of the government in the Golden Age rendered government useless and unnecessary for the conduct of daily affairs of life. It had no power to aid or assist those who had, or who imagined, difficulties. Consequently, no one turned to it for aid in time of need; no social movement expended precious resources in an attempt to gain control of the organs of government, or the levers of power, because those organs were atrophied, and those levers were only connected to judicial institutions and police forces of severally limited operation.