The term “space opera” doesn’t really encompass what John C. Wright’s novel Count to a Trillion is. I read more fantasy than science fiction, generally speaking, and so when the craving for some space opera struck me recently, this book had two things going for it: (1) it was new, and (2) it appeared to be a stand-alone novel. I wanted to get a sense of where the genre was at, but I didn’t want to get involved in an unfinished series by an author I was unfamiliar with, given that I was sneaking this onto the top of a long reading list. More on my hesitation about getting into new series later.
Count to a Trillion contains more fascinating ideas than any five books of its kind, and as such it is brilliantly flawed, because the narrative is so over-flowing with pure scientific spitballing that the actual story often gets lost completely.
Menelaus Illation Montrose is a 23rd Century Texan living in a world that has seen a devastating world war, the fall of the United States, the rise of India and Spain as world powers, and the slow climb out of post-apocalypse towards progress. Aside from being a true Texan, accent and all, as well as a gunslinging duelist, Montrose possesses a genius-level intelligence and is a mathematical prodigy. His boyhood dreams come true when he gets the opportunity to study mathematics in preparation for being part of the crew of the Hermetic, the first manned interstellar vessel, whose mission is to study an alien artifact discovered 50 lightyears from Earth. Years later, aboard the transport shuttle taxiing him to the ship, Montrose injects himself with a genetic compound designed to augment his intelligence, and in doing so becomes the first posthuman. The compound drives him mad, and after bizarre fever dreams of space travel he awakens almost two centuries later, back on Earth, to find that everything has changed, and that deciphering the Monument, the alien artifact found during their journey, is more important than he ever imagined.
The author manages a good balance at first by marking a clear dichotomy between Montrose’s normal persona and the persona of his posthuman self. Montrose awakes to discover that his brain augmentation formula was imcomplete, and so at first the characters are only able to suppress his posthuman self and Montrose consequently experiences a sort of multiple personality disorder which causes him to vacillate between normality and hyperintelligence. For example:
Like trying to recall a dream on waking, he could only snatch at a fragment: All known fields–the gravitational spin connection, gravitational frame, Higgs fields, electroweak gauge bosons, and fermions–could be represented as different aspects of one superconnection over a four-dimensional base manifold. This superconnection is constructed by adding a connection 1-form field to a Grassmann number 0-form field, both valued in different parts of a Lie algebra
It was slipping away. He had to act fast. He could feel himself getting stupider, his senses dulling, and his mind was like a telescope going slowly out of focus.
This works, because it clearly differentiates between the hyper-technical jargon of Montrose’s posthuman self and the familiar inner monologue of Montrose’s human self. The reader understands, just as human Montrose does, that this portion of advanced mathematical analysis signifies the intellect of his higher self, and Montrose’s own inability in this scene to remember with any clarity exactly what he had been thinking while under the spell of his posthuman self mirrors the reader’s own (probable) confusion over just what the hell all that mathy-math talk meant.
As the narrative progresses, Wright has more and more trouble distilling the essence of what amounts to nigh-incomprehensible math babble into plain English. Most of the scientific and mathematical references in this book are over the head of the average reader (myself included). And when I say “over the head of,” I am referring to on-hand knowledge. Anyone can educate themselves as they read, but having to consult Wikipedia multiple times per chapter kind of interrupts the reading process. And it’s either that, or just ignore everything you don’t understand, which means that you pass over significant portions of the text of the novel, coming up with your own equations for understanding the story:
x = tech jargon I don’t understand
y = plot
y – x = z
in which we hope that “z” equals a rational number.
There’s not a lot of action in Count to a Trillion. The vast majority of the book involves the characters sitting around talking about math and science as they try to decipher more fully the alien messages on the Monument. Which is more entertaining than it sounds, particularly given the intriguing concepts involved, but Wright doesn’t always do as good a job as he should of explaining why the conclusions the characters reach are important to the plot. The dialogue is often witty, but just as often falls flat, and the reader is left looking for exposition not cluttered by obtuse posthuman banter. His characters often affect personalities which are not supported by sufficient foundation, spouting apparently playful witticisms that haven’t been couched in any exploration of their relationships outside of their own words. The structure of the book skips around chronologically, and with not significant reflection by the characters’ part on their particular situations, the reader is often left out in the cold as far as understanding what’s going on and why characters speak as they do. For instance, the relationship between Montrose and Princess Rania seems to appear out of nowhere — which, if it was intended to be the result of an efficiency of posthuman understanding and communication, was not well enough explained to work as it should have.
The major problems of this book could have been relatively easily worked out by the editing process, but that seems to be lacking here. One superficial criticism I have to mention is that the book is full of typos, grammar mistakes, and omitted words — the kind of problems I’d expect to see in a galley or an ARC, not a finished novel. That kind of copy-editing oversight always makes me wonder how much attention was actually paid to the work as a whole.
It’s not that the novel isn’t effective, it’s just that it’s not as effective as it could have been. Wright’s editor should have stepped in and said, “Look, Wright, this is a great book you’ve got here, a real doozy. But you’ve got to fill in the blanks a little bit. Readers aren’t posthuman. There’s a lot of great dialogue, and there’s some great description, but there’s not a lot of writing. Where are you in all of this? Where’s the synthesis?” And that’s what’s lacking, in the end: a synthesis of these ideas. The characters have great voices of their own, but Wright’s own voice gets lost. There’s no tone, no authorial analysis. He gets caught up in his characters and forgets his story.
This is particularly true when one considers how the book ends. I have heard nothing that indicates that Count to a Trillion was intended as the first in a series, and neither the book jacket nor the book itself makes reference to such. The ending certainly leaves the story open to a sequel or ten, but I have the feeling it’s intended to be self-contained. Particularly with that in mind, the ending seems abrupt.
Where Count to a Trillion shines is as an invitation to consider the awesome truths and possibilities of our universe and the forces that govern it. It fulfills that seminal purpose of science fiction, to inspire a sense of wonder in the reader. And for that reason, despite its flaws, the novel is worth reading. Read it while well-caffeinated and let your mind wander.