Walter Jon Williams is nothing if not a visionary worldbuilder, and the world of Aristoi is him at his best. I really dig on unique science fiction novels, the kind where the author clearly let his imagination run wild with how the future might turn out, then figured out how to make it logical. It’s something few writers have the courage to do these days.
The title of this novel is an ancient Greek word meaning “the best,” and refers to a title the Greeks used for their noblemen. In the words of Wikipedia, “The term was used to describe the noblemen in ancient Greece, those of a status above the common people. Aristoi were members of the aristocracy and regarded as possessing the trait of Arete; a ‘right nature’.” Wikipedia goes on to describe the Socratic idea of the “philosopher-king”: “the wise person who accepts the power thrust upon him by the people who are wise enough to choose a good master. This is the main thesis of Socrates in the Republic, that the most wisdom the masses can muster is the wise choice of a ruler.”
It is from this concept that Williams takes his premise for Aristoi. In the far future (circa 4200 AD), Earth is no more, having been destroyed in a horrific flood of advanced technology gone awry, and the human race has been forced to drastically rethink the structure of its civilization in order to survive. Deciding that the use of advanced technology (particularly nanotechnology) should be limited to an elite few, the survivors of Earth create a new society that places intelligence and moral character above all else. The citizens of this new society therefore willing grant absolute authority to the Aristoi, the best of them, and allow them to rule over humanity as their ultimate sovereigns. Becoming an Aristos is a simple matter of passing a series of tests — tests that would easily defeat even the most outstanding examples of human intelligence and character alive today. Anyone can apply, but only the ultra-elite extreme few pass.
Williams’ idea is that at this point in its history, humans have discovered how to augment their intelligence with a combination of technology and psychological conditioning. With computer assistance, humans are able to compartmentalize their personalities, effectively breaking their minds into multiple personalities that can handle multiple tasks — and even be in multiple places, thanks to virtual reality — simultaneously. As such the Aristoi are, in a very real way, true posthumans: they no longer have the weaknesses or flaws of ordinary people, and are capable of planning, governing, and protecting entire solar systems. Faster-than-light communications allow for a pan-galactic virtual reality network to exist, which they call the oneirochronon, through which the Aristoi can meet and discuss the governance and future of humanity. The Hyperlogos, a connected galactic network, contains the sum total of human knowledge up that point. Everything done or said by an Aristos is recorded for posterity. What could disrupt such a visionary future? As the book jacket blurb says, a mad Aristoi, of course. What happens when someone with absolute power does something absolutely sane?
That forms the core of Williams’ plot in this novel, which is a rich, detailed, original story filled with technology, art, and adventure. The tone of Aristoi is ultimately hopeful, particularly given that it was written at a time when dystopian SF was the going trend. It tells of a future for humanity that includes advancement and maturation and growing wisdom, though still tinged by the inevitable human flaws of arrogance, greed, and lust for power.
His characters discover, in a way, that being posthuman still means being human. Although human life has been extended, particular for the Aristoi, to a median lifespan of hundreds of years, humans must still face their mortality. Breakdown, or Dorian Gray’s disease, refers to the eventual and inevitable entropic degradation of the artificial systems which extend their lives: eventually, everyone dies. Gabriel finds that his hitherto luxurious lifestyle of sophistry and pleasure merely conceals the often perilous burden of being a leader of a species. He is eventually forced into a situation where his very advanced faculties are compromised, and he is left to discover whether his potential is dependent on his demi-god powers, or whether he can achieve his goals as a mere man. His companion is forced to decide whether she wants to become an Aristos herself, making the ultimate decision between humanity and posthumanity.
The plot is riveting and moves at a quick pace. Those with a taste for imaginative, original SF will love Aristos. I recommend it with no reservations.