I don’t normally do SF book reviews on this blog, but I will make an exception here for John C. Wright’s new book Count to a Trillion. I have a special fondness for Mr. Wright being that he is also a former atheist now Catholic, but my fondness extends way beyond Catholic tribalism as I immensely enjoy both his books and his blog.
Anybody who as read his books from the Golden Age trilogy to Null-A-Contiuum knows he is a writer of big ideas and this book is an embarrassment of riches. So many great ideas are contained within that they could have been parsed out a basis for a dozen of other SF books. This book follows the rich tradition of the Space Opera where it’s not over until the “voluptuous green-skinned spacewomen in silvery space-bikinis” sing.
The specific story follows young Menelaus Illation Montrose from his childhood on. The Western world is in collapse and the world is divided up into various spheres of influence such as the Indosphere and the Hispanosphere. Menelaus is a brilliant polymath who dreams of “shining tomorrows” and the disappointments of actual life and not flying cars and other gee wiz technological developments. His dreams are partially shaped by a comic book series named Asymptote that has many shadows of Star Trek and it’s view of the future of man along with the cornier aspects related to Captain Kirk. As someone whose childhood included the start of the Star Trek series and the race to the moon this young character had many elements I could relate to. His mother though has other plans for him that don’t include such starry-eyed dreaming and seemingly escapist literature.
His path to adulthood leads through various phases of apprenticeship with nothing fully using his talents. He becomes a dueling-lawyer, that is a lawyer that handles things outside of court hi-tech dueling pistols. The description of one of the duels is one of the great ideas the story is so peppered with. These special guns with defenses reminds me of aviation warfare with electronic countermeasures, chaff, and other deceptive techniques along with special missiles. Having worked in this area in my Navy career this brining it down to the dueling level was especially pleasing. But this is only a small part of the plot of the book.
The main thrust of the book deals broadly with space flight, harvesting of a star, and the results of abundant cheap energy on the world as it is politically controlled. Menelaus steps into this future and into a subsequent future a century or so hence is filled with missteps that initially take him out of the action for part of the time. When he becomes able to participate he finds himself in a future where there is no war, but with a very cold war atmosphere where a group of spaceman-scientists have blackmailed the world both with cheap energy and the threat of destruction that can’t be countered. Instead of Mutual Assured Destruction, there is just destruction for those who oppose this rule. This is a more dystopian than utopian future as the lack of wars does not denote actual peace and while technological developments have changed many things for the better, the tensions involving the source of energy are causing other pressures leading to conflict.
Being that John C. Wright has written about the “New Space Princess Movement” and our need for it, it is not surprising that the book indeed includes a beautiful and super intelligent Space Princess. A very enjoyable character who to me has shadows of the thankfulness of G.K. Chesterton. Maybe I am reading this into the story, but there seemed to be a light shadow of Chesterton in it. Of course any story with a Space Princess will set up a love triangle and in this case it is between Menelaus and his best friend and now dangerous foe Del Azarchel and Princess Rania. This of course creates most of the tensions in the latter half of the book leading to a showdown between the two.
But with there’s more. The book also deals with post humanism and contact with an alien civilization which has left an artifact so dense with information that ultimately it can only be read by someone with post human intelligence. The big ideas surrounding this aspect are also very interesting and the consequences of this and possible contact with the aliens that left this drives the plot in multiple ways that are surely to develop since this is first book of the trilogy.
John C. Wright slings a lot of scientific BS in this novel, but it is slung well and is a higher order of scientific BS than of the Star Trek variety. So there is a bit of technobabble, but you also get the feeling it more science-based than just space opera plot filler. The philosophical discussions between the main characters is also interesting and makes the types of distinctions I like to see. Really the dialogue is quite enjoyable and often very funny at times. One description involving hackers and Moby Dick is one of the funniest things I have ever read and his pun on the spanish pronunciation of Jesus is one that will never let me hear the Spanish pronunciation of the name the same again.
One reviewer takes to task how the super-intelling post human version of Menelaus in that he “talks like a caricature of John Wayne in a low-budget Western.” I can understand this criticism, but it seems to me also a bit of a bias as I can think of at least one Texan who I would consider very intelligent and extremely well read and who talks in a folksy Texan style.
The ending of this book though is more in the fashion of a cliffhanger from an old serial than is usual in space opera. Many things are left hanging and since I enjoyed the book so much my patience of waiting for the rest of the trilogy will be quite taxing. The book might not be for everybody, but it was certainly for me who loves both space opera and the old movie serials.