John C. Wright loves how the science-fiction format known as “space opera” allows him to take on huge concepts with equally larger-than-life characters, as evidenced by his popular “Golden Age” trilogy. His latest novel, COUNT TO A TRILLION, is likewise vast and expansive, to the point where it’s nearly impossible to contain in a single book.
Hundreds of years in the future, mathematical genius Menelaus Illation Montrose is part of an interstellar crew on a special mission. An artifact, known as The Monument, has been discovered in a distant star system and is believed to be of alien origin.
Menelaus and his crew have been sent to try to decipher the strange inscriptions that cover The Monument. He believes that the data contained in them is so complex that mere human intellect is incapable of understanding it. So he injects his brain with a biochemical drug intended to boost his brain to superhuman intelligence. The dose drives him mad, and his crewmates place him under cryo-suspension for the rest of the mission.
Nearly two centuries later, Menelaus is awakened with his sanity seemingly restored. He is greeted by his friend, the misson’s pilot, who explains how much the world has changed while Menelaus slept.
Now that he is awake, Menelaus is immediately recruited on a new mission. The Monument’s inscriptions still mystify Earth’s greatest thinkers, and it has been concluded that only a posthuman being can discover and comprehend its true meaning.
He is then introduced to the Iron Ghost, the self-conscious, posthuman machine created in the image of the former pilot, and quickly advances it brain capacity. With the Iron Ghost’s aid, Menelaus, the pilot and the other intellects who currently rule the world unveil the meaning of The Monument and the far-flung threat it carries for most of the known universe.
Wright wisely focuses his narrative on his central character. From this, we learn that the young Menelaus is a prodigiously brilliant youth who is disappointed that the romantic future he read about in the comic fiction while growing up never happened. His futuristic world is an odd, fascinating mixture of advanced technology with archaic customs, including duels to resolve arguments between lawyers. Even after his awakening, Menelaus speaks with what reads like a Southern drawl, complete with the occasional “y’all,” from his Texas-area upbringing.
The author’s initial structure, however, is off-putting. He shifts back and forth frequently between Menelaus’ past and his current interstellar mission, with only year-number signatures as a clue. It creates a good deal of confusion until after he is awakened. From that point on, the story follows a mostly straight-line pattern.
Since there is so much to cover in his premise, Wright unfortunately resorts to long, long passages of dialogue and interior exposition to explain the multitude of speculative mathematical, theoretical and philosophical concepts that are all part of the story. It gets ponderous at times, and defies anything other than slow, deliberate reading and re-reading to take it all in. Fortunately, Wright breaks these up with moments of unexpected humor and occasional scenes of near-swashbuckling action and battles.
At the heart of COUNT TO A TRILLION is an intriguing meditation on future evolution, as well as contemplations of intelligence and its proper function in a probable, posthuman world. It’s heady stuff, and mostly worth the effort when Wright remembers that his readership is also interested in an involving story with characters that react as well as think.
It all seems way too much to be limited to one 364-page book. Yet knowing Wright, we probably have not seen the last of Menelaus Montrose or the future his formidable intellect has driven us toward. —Alan Cranis