I’m always hesitant to review John C. Wright’s works. It’s like… trying to review bacon. What do you say about bacon? That it’s delicious? Everyone knows that, except vegans and vegetarians and a few crazies, but the competency of vegans and vegetarians to render judgement on a food is suspect until they decide to suck it up and stop trying to reproduce delicious meat (Tofurkey, etc.) with processed sticks. That it’s best crispy, but even soft bacon is like the bread of heaven?
So yeah. What do you say about John C. Wright’s books? They’re fantastic? Everyone knows that, except for leftist whackos who let their politics obscure all sense of fairness and wonder. That he’s at his best when he’s dealing with the secrets of creation, but even when he’s not at his best (I mean, no one’s perfect.) his books are still more fun than most other writers?
If you’ve been reading Wright’s Count to the Eschaton books (starting with Count to a Trillion), you’ll know what to expect from The Vindication of Man. Not to say that it’s predictable or formulaic; better to say that we’re comfortable with the rhythm of the series now. If you haven’t been reading it, you should. They’re not quite the perfection that his Golden Age trilogy was, but they’re great anyways.
For those who haven’t been keeping up, the series starts a few hundred years hence, but the narrative starts consuming larger and larger chunks of time as it progresses. (The Vindication of Man includes a “conversation” that takes place over 2,000 years.) It follows two men, Menelaus Montrose and Ximen del Azarchel, as they attempt to guide humanity into a form that can survive contact with the inhuman rulers of the galaxy, whose “emissaries” are coming to enslave the human race. Menelaus, a post-apocalyptic, Texan gunslinger-lawyer seeks to make humanity into something that can turn back the incoming invaders; Ximen, aka Blackie, seeks to make mankind into a race of servants that will be useful to the invaders. Both are vying for the love of Princess Rania, who has taken off in a starship to the self-aware star cluster M3, the nearest governing body of the alien intelligences, in order to prove humanity’s standing as a starfaring race and freeing us from the threat of slavery. It’s a round trip scheduled to 70,000ish years. Plenty of time for combat and machinations as two more-or-less posthumans face off via cliometrics (what Asimov called psychohistory) and pistol duels.
It is, in short, the most John C. Wright story that ever John C. Wright wrote.
The Vindication of Man covers from about the 69th Millenium to the about the 92nd– and sharp-eyed readers will notice that those dates are after Rania’s return, when humanity is supposed to be free of the threat of servitude to cold machine masters. And it is– in theory– but nothing is ever quite as simple as that. I’m going to try to keep spoilers for The Vindication of Man to a minimum, so I’ll say this: there’s something wrong with the cliometric calculations that both Montrose and Blackie have been using for all this time. Something that perplexes even the transcendent alien intelligences themselves.
No one’s ever perfect, like I said, and I have a few quibbles with the series as a whole, if not specifically this book so much. Something that struck me as I was reading it was that we had spent so much time with the first races made from humanity– Chimera, Witches, Sylphs, etc– that they became a fixture of the series; but by the time The Vindication of Man picks up, they are more or less extinct, absorbed into, or engineered into, later races. It’s a little disconcerting to think about 600 pages spent with these guys who are now all but gone. Maybe that’s the sweep of history; but it’s bugging me a little more than it should.
My other issue comes from something that’s actually been fairly standard for the series– chunks of it are told from the point of view of “average” Joes whose lives happen to bump into Montrose. At least half of one of the early books was composed of stories about Montrose, told from the point of view of these average Joes, but in both The Vindication of Man and The Architect of Aeons (Immediately preceding Vindication) the shift to one of these normal folks is more jarring. Earlier stories were in the context of an investigation to locate Montrose; here, they’re just at the start of a new section of the book, without immediate context. Eventually you get the context, but it’s a little frustrating initially– Wright’s got a knack for cliffhangers. Including the end of The Vindication of Man. I was trying to think of the last time a cliffhanger grabbed me the way the end of this book did, and the only thing that came to mind is that first glimpse of Locutus in the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “The Best of Both Worlds.” Or maybe a couple from the Battlestar Galactica reboot. (“Earth….”)
Don’t let these complaints stop you, though. The Vindication of Man, like very nearly everything that John C. Wright writes, is a great read, full of moments of wonder, gosh-wow, and audacity. I actually laughed out loud at a point towards the end of the book– not because it was funny, or stupid, but out of joy at the sheer boldness of it. It was like reading Doc Smith talk about weaponizing star systems, except with theology. Come to think of it…. In general, the early vibe is more Buck Rogers than Lensman, but “Buck Rogers with theology” isn’t a bad description for the series.