A look at John C. Wright’s Count to Trillion

Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright
Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright

Count to a Trillion
John C. Wright
Tor, 2011

Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright is the first in a new transhumanist space opera series. The novel follows Menelaus Montrose, resident of the war ravaged Texus and a lawyer (disputes are arbited via pistol duels so there is very little traditional law infvolved) as well as a math genius. Montrose is recurited for a space mission to investigate a mysterious alien monolith. It is on this mission that Montrose believing that only a scientifically accelerated mind, a posthuman mind, can decipher the artifact injects himself with a specially developed serum designed to unlock his mind’s true potential. Driven mad by the process Montrose awakens almost two centuries later to a world vastly different from the one he knew.

I feel obligated to confess that I am not well versed in Mathematics. I mention this because a large chunk of the novel involves a whole lot of math speak. I have no way to verify the accuracy or factual content here. My ignorance in this area didn’t really phase me when it comes to Count to A Trillion and I was willing to buy what was being said throughout the novel. Truth be told my lack of math knowledge was probably more of a boon than anything else.

Reading Count to a Trillion I realized that science fiction with posthuman/transhumanist themes is something I really enjoy. Starting as far back as Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon I’ve always thought there is something endless fascinating about the questions that arise as humans use science to better themselves. In some cases authors look at these themes through a somewhat negative lens and indeed one of the primary arguments against transhumanism while Count to a Trillion takes a somewhat optimistic views it actually borrows from Dr. Nick Bostrum’s definitions of existential threats as defined in his paper Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards (from Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 9, March 2002). I don’t for a fact if Wright read this article before writing Count to a Trillion but his novel fits in almost perfectly with a variety of the existential risk categories defined Dr. Bostrum’s article. Wright’s novel features threats in the form of “crunches” (human development is stymied), “shrieks” (a narrow development of posthumanity), and “whimpers” (caused by the limits of physical reality or other unknowns).

In Count to a Trillion, Montrose awakes centuries after his initial experiments to what at first seems to be an idyllic society. However, the more he sees the more he realizes that things have stagnated and development in certain areas have reached a state of “technological arrest” (a crunch). Montrose’s own experiments were partially successful and created a divergent somewhat mad entity in his own mind; a “flawed superintelligence” (a shriek) and at the same time the society created by Montrose’s companions has resulted in a “repressive totalitarian global regime” (a shriek). Of course as Montrose continues to unlock the secrets of the Monolith reveals another threat in the form of a whimper (I don’t want to spoil it). There’s more variations on each of the existential risks defined by Dr. Bostrum found in Count to a Trillion and in many ways the novel feels like an exercise in thinking of a way around the those threats; or at least how an exceptional individual can subvert those threats.

Count to a Trillion isn’t a novel for everyone but I absolutely loved it. While I can’t speak to the actual science and math behind Wright’s writing I found the philosophical examination of the existential risks in the novel completely fascinating and absolutely absorbing. While the treats are large and real Wright never veers into completely grim territory. Montrose, for all his superintelligence, remains a human whose outlook on the future is formed by his experiences with science fiction (a fictional show based on old school science fiction). Count to a Trillion is part, and really only the tip of the iceberg, of an emerging movement in science fiction leaning towards optimism over the grim, gritty, and despairing (see Sarah Hoyt’s “manifesto” here, or Neal Stephenson’s notions here). Count to a Trillion is only the beginning and I’m excited to see where Wright takes the story next and what wonders the plucky and resourceful Montrose devises to save the world.

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