Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Book Review: The Hermetic Millennia by John C. Wright

The Hermetic Millennia is a science fiction novel by John C. Wright, author of the "Golden Age" trilogy (The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant, and The Golden Transcendence) and a fantasy trilogy beginning with Orphans of Chaos, among others. It is the second book in his "Eschaton Sequence" and a direct sequel to his previous book Count to a Trillion, which should definitely be read first.
For 8000 years, transhuman genius, gunslinger, and former space traveler Menelaus Montrose has waged a secret war for the future of the human race against his former comrades, the crew of humanity's first manned interstellar spacecraft, the Hermetic. Fifty lightyears from Earth, the human race found a source of all but limitless energy and wealth in the form of an entire star made of antimatter and dramatic evidence of alien intelligence on a monolith orbiting it, inscribed with a vast library of knowledge far beyond humanity's.
The Hermetic was sent to investiagte the monolith and, using stellar lifting equipment sent ahead of them by unmanned craft decades previously, begin mining the star. They succeeded- but returned to earth over a century later not as explorers but as conquerors after a mutiny killed the original captain and much of his crew.
With control of the only interstellar spacecraft, the vast knowledge gleaned from the monolith, and enough antimatter to either Usher the earth into a golden age of almost unlimited energy or turn its cities to ash, they became the masters of the world while Montrose slept in cryogenic hibernation to preserve his life and sanity after an ill-advised decision to inject himself with an experimental serum that restructured his brain to superhuman levels of intelligence but left him dangerously unstable for much of the expedition. Finally awakened decades later, his former comrades- now calling themselves the Hermeticists- welcomed him into their new elite, but Montrose soon becomes disaffected with them as he sees the oppressive world they've created and starts to regain his memories of what happened on their expedition.
In 11,000 AD, an invasion fleet sent by an unimaginably advanced civilization of machine intelligences in the Hyades Cluster will reach Earth. The monolith was a trap, and by successfully mining the nearby star humanity alerted the monolith's builders to our existence and our possession of sufficient technological sophistication to be useful subjects. We will serve them, or be exterminated. Even if we could fight them off, they are only one among many vassal races of a still greater power, which is in turn subject to an even more advanced civilization in the M3 globular cluster.
With the intent of the Hyades civilization coldly laid out in the monolith left for us to find and the apparent impossibility of defeating them demonstrated by the staggering knowledge contained in it, the Hermeticists begin a project to save the human race: Reshaping our biology and culture to make us the best slaves possible, so that the Hyades civilization will find it worthwhile to let humanity survive in some form rather than snuffing us out.
Equipped with his transhuman intellect, advanced knowledge in the alien monolith, the physical and financial resources acquired in his brief stint as one of the Hermetic elite, and skills acquired from his early days as a "lawyer" in a devastated 22nd-century Texas where the practice of law frequently involved quasilegal duels fought with pistols that were practically entire artillery batteries unto themselves, Menelaus Montrose is the only man on earth who can stand in their way. And so for millennia, as civilizations, societies, and entire posthuman species rise and fall, Montrose has used all the vast mental and physical resources at his command to wage a slow struggle against his former crewmates, trying to steer humanity onto a path that will allow it to resist the threat from Hyades long enough for humanity's one hope- an expedition to M3, 33,900 lightyears from Earth- to succeed.
In the year 10,500 AD Montrose finds himself unexpectedly awakened to discover that his hibernation chamber has been found and dug up by the dominant civilization of this time- and, with it, those of thousands of others from across the ages who, disaffected with their own eras, chose to sleep away the millennia in cryonics facilities maintained by Montrose's agents. Now, Montrose must recruit aid from the wildly diverse array of post-humans who have been awakened with him in order to free himself and continue his struggle. And the fleet from Hyades is not far away...
I liked this book a lot. I love the whole concept of the series, with its vast scope in both space and time and, and Wright executes it well. The central conflict between Monrose and the Hermeticists is interesting, there's some exciting action sequences, and Wright incorporates a lot of interesting and inventive ideas into it and into the larger backdrop it's set against.
Much of the book is episodic in format, with people of different eras telling their own stories as Montrose meets them and recruits them into his planned rebellion. We encounter a bewildering array of post-human species and cultures, from the militaristic, eugenicist Chimera, to the almost mindlessly hedonistic Nymphs, to grotesque beings that can incorporate parts of other organisms into themselves, to group-mind beings, and more. Interspersed, and sometimes intersecting, with these are stories of Montrose's periodic awakenings during each era to counter the machinations of Hermeticists.
Most of the post-humans are pretty interesting, and the way the author presents them makes them more compelling. Some of them initially come across as caricatures or stock archetypes- the Proud Warrior Race, the Innocent Hedonists, the Hive Mind, the Embodiments of What the Author Thinks Is Wrong With the World- but they have more depth than that. Many of them are monstrous, morally and sometimes physicaly, but they are not monsters; Wright does a good job of portraying all of them with at least some degree of dignity and sympathy, and the book is much stronger for it.
Menelaus Montrose is a highly enjoyable, likable protagonist, and its enjoyable watching him put his talents to work to understand and survive the situation he's thrust into upon being awakened. I thought his characterization was effective in portraying a man with a naturally idealistic temperament hardened by his youth in an impoverished, violent, borderline post-apocalyptic world ravaged by decades of religious conflict and biological warfare. He works well as a primary viewpoint character, since he comes from something at least vaguely resembling the world as we know it
His personality and disposition- hopeful without being saccharine or Pollyanna-ish, strongly concerned for others, trying to think of himself as just a person unlike any other despite his augmented intelligence and the godlike stature he has gained in myths of the legendary "judge of Ages" created by his periodic and sometimes dramatic returns over the millennia- provides an interesting contrast in tone with the setting of the series. (As do many of the other characters, to a lesser extent.)
The galaxy revealed in Count to a Trillion is a terrifying, brutal place, with relationships between species governed by utterly amoral considerations of economics and game theory. The purpose of the human expedition to the civilization in M3 is not to appeal to their sense of mercy or justice, but to the same calculations laid out in the monolith explaining why we are currently nothing but the Hyades civilization's chattel. Interstellar invasions are staggeringly costly endeavors even for races millions of years beyond us, and it's far more efficient to interact peacefully with a species if they can make plans and commitments on the vast timescales required for a galaxy-spanning civilization limited by the speed of light.
The pitiful insignificance and vulnerability of the human race amongst such vast, superior, ancient, and utterly uncaring powers is almost Lovecraftian, cosmic horror by way of hard science fiction. The history of humanity and posthumanity across the millennia is scarcely kinder. The Hermeticist's create and then discard sapient human species as they try to shape humanity into something that they think will survive the arrival of the invasion from the Hyades, each failure consigned to extermination by its successors
The contrast between the warmth and humanity of most of the characters and the cold heartlessness of their world (the very first scene even begins with the protagonist encased in a cryonic hibernation chamber) is very effective at making both stand out, and adds a lot to each.
I greatly enjoyed The Hermetic Millennia and would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in hard science fiction, space opera, or stories about transhumanism, though you should definitely read Count to a Trillion first. I greatly look forward to the next book in the series, The Judge of Ages.

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