Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: The Judge of Ages by John C. Wright

The Judge of Ages is the third book in the science fiction series by John C. Wright that began with Count to a Trillion and continued with The Hermetic Millennia. (See my review here.) It follows directly from the second book and assumes familiarity with the offense and concepts of its predecessors, so it's definitely a series that should be read in order.

In 11,000 AD, the Armada of an unimaginably advanced civilization of machine intelligences from the Hyades will complete a journey of nearly 8,000 years and arrive on Earth as conquerors. For almost all of that time, Menelaus Montrose- 22nd-century Texan lawyer/duelist turned space traveler and subject of a more-or-less successful self-administered experiment in intelligence augmentation- has fought against his former friend and shipmate, self-proclaimed Master of the World Ximen del Azarchel, for the future of the human race, each using post-human brilliance and the science of historical prediction gleaned from an alien monolith discovered on humanity's first manned expedition beyond our solar system, in a long struggle to shape the course of cultural and biological evolution.

For almost all of that time, del Azarchel and his allies have worked tirelessly to turn humanity into a servile race that will submit to the invaders and survive, rather than risk extinction trying to defy them. For the Hyades are themselves only the vassals of an even mightier civilization,  who are themselves subordinate to the unimaginably advanced civilization that rules our entire galaxy from the globular cluster M3.

While his trusted lieutenants gather people from across the ages who wish to escape their own era in a network of underground cryogenic tombs, Montrose has slept away the centuries and millenia in cryogenic suspension beneath the earth until times when his intervention is needed. He lives for the hope of creating a human civilization that can stand against the Hyades- and of living long enough to someday be reunited with his wife Rania, departed on a desperate 70,000 year voyage to M3 to make an appeal on behalf of the human race.

It is the year 10,515. Montrose and hundreds of his sleeping clients have been awakened by tomb raiders seeking the legendary Judge of Ages- the godlike figure Montrose has become in the myths of cultures spanning thousands of years, said to slumber beneath the earth until he arises to pass terrible judgments on entire eras and civilizations. Accompanied by human and posthuman allies from across eight millennia of radical transformation and turmoil, Montrose must regain control of his tombs and protect his clients so that he can resume his battle for the human race- a human race that appears disturbingly absent on the barren, frozen surface of the Earth he's awakened to. Meanwhile, del Azarchel is still working to turn humanity into a race of perfect slaves for the Hyades, who are just centuries away.

I liked The Judge of Ages quite a bit. The central premise of the entire series is one of the more intriguing ones I've run into in recent years, and Wright continues to do interesting things with it. We learn more about some of the post-human inhabitants of the Earth and just what's happened to reduce the world to its desolate and seemingly uninhabited state, as well as the true nature of Azarchel's machinations and the scope of Montrose's response, both of which turn out to be even vaster than they previously appeared.

And I realize that “vaster than they previously appeared” sounds sort of absurd in the context of an 8000-year conflict between supergeniuses where human evolution itself is the battleground and entire sapient species are casualties, but therein lies one of the great strengths of the book and series. Wright throws out interesting ideas with wild abandon, from little details about future technologies or societies to much larger things with important consequences to the entire story or setting, and yet does so in such a way that even bizarre or outrageously grandiose concepts still seem natural and reasonable within the logic of the story. It combines thoughtfully worked out consequences of technologies and other ideas and the constraints of reasonably hard science fiction (there's no FTL, antigravity, or my personal bugbear, nanotech-as-magic) with the sort of wild exuberance I'd usually associate with old pulp space opera or early Marvel Comics.

(Wright's writing in general often seems to have this quality, whether he's doing science fiction or fantasy, where there's such a proliferation of stuff that the story seems like it ought to either be crushed under its own density or go careening out of control and over the side of a cliff, but doesn't.)

There are some excellent action scenes, and Wright uses the collision of technologies and biologies from across his future history- powered armored and other relatively conventional science fiction weapons like railguns, a monstrous race of posthumans capable of radically modifying their own biology and ruthlessly optimized for conflict, colossal 22nd-century dueling pistols with bullets that have their own engines and countermeasures and accompanying escorts of smaller defensive bullets, a self-replicating computer system that's been gnawing at the iron core of the earth long enough to have significant influence on the planet's magnetic field, among other things- effectively in this regard as well.

I still like Menelaus Montrose a lot as protagonist and viewpoint character. It helps that his odd backstory allows him to serve as a sort of audience surrogate in a very strange world without being ignorant, ineffectual, or bland in the way such characters often are. He's able to quickly understand and adapt to the bizarre conditions he finds himself in thanks to his augmented intelligence, but his original background is in a society much closer to our own then to its successors. Consequently, he appreciates just how bizarre his world and his own story are (from the perspective of a 21st-centuryish human) in a way most protagonists of far future science fiction do not, without being a bewildered primitive or inept fish out of water. He approaches things with a combination of wry, seemingly detached humor and a very serious sense of purpose, and the mixture works well.

I also enjoyed a lot of the supporting characters, and especially Montrose's archnemesis Ximen del Azarchel. Wright's portrayal of him is extremely charming and likable, so much so that when he appears in a scene it's quite easy to temporarily forget the atrocities he's committed. There's also a certain point in the story where, at a key moment, Azarchel does something that is clearly tactically unwise- but his characterization is strong enough that, rather than seeming like an author writing himself into a corner and turning his villain into an idiot to get out of it, it felt completely natural and appropriate given the situation.

My chief criticism is the pacing in the first part of the book. After the scope and scale of the story thus far, the first chapters of The Judge of Ages felt somewhat claustrophobic. Montrose spends quite a bit of time as a captive down in his tombs as he tries to get in position to begin an uprising against his captors, and while I still enjoyed the section I felt it went on too long and weakened the momentum and tension built up by the end of the second book. Things certainly pick up, and taken as a whole the book is still quite strong, but it would've benefited from spending less time on that part of the story and more on some of the events and revelations later in the book.

That aside, though, I really liked The Judge of Ages and would strongly recommend it, and the entire series, to anyone interested in science fiction. (Though as I said above, be sure to read the series in order.) I'm really looking forward to seeing where Wright goes next with it.

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