#CBR6 Review #21: Count to a Trillion

Count to a TrillionTarget: John C. Wright’s Count to a Trillion. (Count to Eschaton Sequence #1)

Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera

After Action Report:

Count to a Trillion is a strange sort of novel.  It seems primarily dedicated to avoiding any kind of resolution to any of the narratives it establishes and finding other literary ways to annoy me.  Poor characterization, egregious technobabble and obnoxious timeskips are just a few of the book’s many sins.  And yet, there is an interesting and ambitious concept at its core.  Ultimately, I think the novel falls short of its goals, but it takes us on what could be the start of an intriguing ride.

Count to a Trillion opens an unspecified amount of time in the future. The Earth has been ravaged by non-nuclear global war and racial strife. These events have left the Indosphere and Hispanosphere in control of much of the world.  Born in the relative backwater of the southern United States, Menelaus Illation Montrose grows up as a judicial gun-for-hire, but hides a unique secret: a phenomenal gift for higher mathematics.  Pressganged into an once-in-a-lifetime expedition to examine an alien artifact orbiting a tantalizing source of free energy, Menelaus subjects himself to an experimental procedure designed to artificially enhance his brain to a posthuman level.  The process drives him insane.

The summary gets complicated at this point, with Menelaus’ point-of-view leapfrogging forward nearly two hundred years to witness the aftermath of his expedition.  While Menelaus is undoubtedly the protagonist, his PoV makes for a very poor reader vehicle.  His perspective drops in and out and is complicated by his self-induced insanity.  He could be considered an unreliable narrator by some standards, as the Menelaus who we begin the book with is very clearly not the Menelaus we finish with.

Much of the book is also consumed with a particularly egregious kind of technobabble in the form of the higher order maths of alien communication.  The Monument, an alien maguffin covered in undecipherable writing, supposedly contains the secrets of the universe.  But every time one of the characters starts going on about the complex formulas it contains, my eyes just start glazing over.  I am, admittedly, not a math person, but much of the discussion of these higher order maths seems to be either fictional and therefore unnecessary to detail in the narrative, or just wrong and stupid.  I had originally wanted to find a more math-savvy reader to go over these sections for me, but barring that, I would be very interested in any of my reader’s thoughts on this obnoxious math-babble

Another, more serious problem lies in the construction of the greater Eschaton Sequence’s structure.  Count to a Trillion is, at best, a prologue to a greater story of humanity struggling to find its place in a hostile universe.  The events of Trillion reveal the existence of several overwhelmingly powerful alien empires spanning the nearby galaxies.  Montrose’s expedition has started a countdown to their arrival and subsequent subjugation of the human race.  The broader implications of these events are barely touched upon in this book, but feature heavily in the preview of the next book, The Hermetic Millennia.  The upshot of all this is that Count to a Trillion is largely pointless.  Aside from developing Menelaus as a character (and not a terribly well drawn one) there is no actual reason to read Trillion.

When combined with John C. Wright’s poor narrative and unacceptable caricature that is the book’s only major female character, Princess Raina, this core issue forms the base of an almost unsurmountable obstacle to a favorable recommendation.  In spite of that, there are some interesting pieces here.  The Hermetic Millennia seems to be a much more interesting story, better expressing Wright’s ambitious goals with its exploration of a humanity rapidly evolving, socially and technologically, to face the challenges of the future.  Keep in mind that I haven’t read Hermetic Millennia at this point, so this is more a hope than a real recommendation.  What Trillion does have going for it is a strong snapshot of several possible hard SF futures.  Both post-war backwater and post-sustenance utopia are depicted well here, and there is something hopeful about the transition from one to the other, despite the book’s negative context.

Count to a Trillion is clearly not for everyone, but fans of hard SF and math types might get more out of it than I did.  To anyone else, don’t bother reading this book.

Posted on July 7, 2014, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I *am* a hard SF fan, and I didn’t like it, either. The book started out well, but soon bogged down and wandered about aimlessly for a few hundred pages. Then, just as the action was beginning to pick up, it abruptly came to an end. There was a note basically saying that if you want to find out what happens you have to buy the next book. Then the first chapter from the subsequent book was presented.

    Clearly, Wright has no idea how to structure a story. I have no problem with a book being part of a series, or even ending in a cliffhanger. But each book in a series needs to stand on its own and come to a definite conclusion. The protagonist might not complete his quest, but he must at least make significant progress and reach a major milestone on his journey by the end of the book. That didn’t happen here.

    The editor doesn’t know his job, either. Otherwise, he would have rejected the story with instructions to chop out the tedious two thirds to three quarters of the story and bring it to a plausible conclusion.

    After reading this book, I have no interest in reading any more stories by this writer. If you are looking for good hard SF, try Catherine Asaro, who knows her physics and also knows how to tell a good story with interesting characters. Or pick up a story by Stephen Baxter or Robert Reed.

    • Hi Brian,

      I should have responded to this months ago, but I wanted to let you know that I checked out Asaro and put Primary Inversions in my reading queue. I’m super behind in said reading queue, but I’m really looking forward to it! Thanks for the rec!

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