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Book Review: Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright

Genre: Hard SF, Posthuman, Science Fiction
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: December 20, 2011
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0765329271
ISBN-13: 978-0765329271
Author Website: John C. Wright

Count to a Trillion is one of those novels I shouldn’t like, but did. It does everything I don’t usually care for. It is hugely philosophical, uses scientific terms and references theorems that are gobbledygook to me, and makes mental connections between chapters that are not indicated clearly. I had no normal reason to like John C. Wright’s newest novel (the first in a planned trilogy) of posthumanity, but I loved it anyway.

The narrative follows Menelaus, a young boy from Texas who is growing up in an age where the world economy has collapsed, infrastructure is nonexistent, and bioterrorism has wiped out a significant portion of the population. But this is far from being a dystopian novel. Menelaus is a genius, able to realize pi is an unsolvable number at the age of four, whose genius is likely to be wasted in the neo-Wild West frontier country of Texas. Then Prince Rainier Grimaldi of Monaco, a dreamer, recruits Menelaus to become a spaceman of the joint Hispano- and Indo- sphere coalition sent out on the spaceship Hermetic at near light speeds to mine antimatter (a source of near infinite energy), solve the mystery of the alien Monument at the Diamond Star V 886 Centauri and return to Earth 100 years later. Menelaus has different plans though. He wants to “defeat Darwin” by becoming the first ever posthuman. Menelaus’ actions have far-reaching consequences that spiral out through the course of the rest of the novel.

Count to a Trillion is a densely packed novel that calls out for multiple readings. John C. Wright has researched and read a great deal about space flight, philosophy, game theory, and mathematics to create a hard science fiction novel of humanity on the cusp of posthumanity. Yet at the same time, the novel harkens back to the Golden Age of science fiction, where spaceflight was a communal dream and action drove plot. The result is an intellectual treat topped with a sauce of engaging exploits.

Menelaus is a character that is both “other” and an intimate. The product of a hard-driving mother and a desire to transcend himself, he is a character that we empathize with and cheer on in his deeds. He is also fallible, because in much of the novel his friends fool him, but at the same time perceptive as he unravels the mystery of what happened after he first attempted to transcend humanity.

This is my first encounter with a story that posits a genetic, intellectual posthumanity, as opposed to a mechanized one (a foil provided in the novel by an artificial intelligence, itself somewhat different from the norm). Menalaus’ attempt to become something greater connects humanity to posthumanity without a singularity, providing a continuous, historical narrative of mankind’s becoming something “other”. I could not have been more enthralled by this idea, even as I was distracted by the particulars of the science Wright postulates. Those more scientific than me will need to asses the validity of the theorems and logical decision making Wright voices through Menelaus and let me know if these are real or created only for the purpose of the novel. Wright’s logical mind and clear writing make it seem real for the uninitiated, but I cannot attest to how truly “hard” his science is.

Wright’s writing is clear and crisp. He wastes no effort on excessive introspection. This is a novel of mankind’s reaching for the stars, of political upheaval, of a man in search of something outside himself. Though the narrative follows Menelaus, it is told from a third-person limited perspective, so that we only know what Menelaus knows. It is this choice, I think, that keeps the novel so entertaining, as each and every chapter is revelatory, just as it is for the character.

Count to a Trillion mostly concerns itself with internecine strife on one-world government Earth and between Menelaus and those he trusts. Yet it is an external threat that causes this strife in the first place. The ending is left open-ended about the ultimate fate of humanity, and I for one am eager to discover which of the two fates the narrative presents will be humanity’s ultimate destiny. There are lots of ways it could go, especially in light of the ending. This is the genius of the writing. John C. Wright takes the reader on an epic ride, but leaves you hanging just enough that you cannot help but crave more.

I have not been surprised by nor enjoyed a science fiction novel this much in years. Wright grabs you by the intellect and shakes some classic scifi entertainment into it. Count to a Trillion is highly recommended reading.