Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
23 December 2011
There are times when I wonder if there are not some who imagine writing and reading as one long dinner party—pleasant and polite, a pleasing diversion populated by erudite fellow diners most concerned with ensuring no one leaves offended. In this I have great sympathy with the provocateurs and hatchetmen who are willing to name and shame those guests who are least deserving of their invites. On the other hand, provocation is often seen at the table hand-in-hand with its uglier sibling, offense. John C. Wright has very often crossed this line.
There are, of course, two topics widely acknowledged by cliché as ones never to discuss at a dinner party. A post at the Wertzone is, for those who want it, a good introduction to the ways in which Wright has offended and trespassed. In particular, a commenter lists a series of wild infractions: "he calls multiculturalism a 'sick dogma', compares teaching Native American culture in schools to zoophilia, mocks the existence of Native American studies, wants to deport all Muslims out of America, and is basically just completely unable to deal with anyone who is not a straight, Christian white man." That Wright is a loquacious writer who will never pen a sentence when he might splurge a paragraph cannot disguise the kernels this commenter fishes out from what are often voluminous posts: there is something self-satisfied about Wright's work which aggressively precludes the other (he has, for instance, described himself and fellow graduates of St John's College, Annapolis, as "a man with a memory in a land of amnesiacs").
His latest novel, Count to a Trillion, is the first in a projected series of books focusing on a future which, having pulled itself out of an environmental disaster caused not by climate change but by terrorist attack, slowly takes on a fascistic tendency towards unity over freedom. Spanish Catholics feature heavily, as does artificial intelligence augmentation, male power fantasies, and Nietzschean supermen. One imagines Wright thought long and hard about how a fictional universe might bear the weight of his own reactionary politics. It is weirdly to his credit that he has envisioned one—the milieu he conjures provides a fitting forum in which he can interrogate a variety of his favorite bugbears, from liberal democracy to Darwinian evolution. His rather awkward future nevertheless attempts to head off at the pass his more skeptical readers: put bluntly, Wright’s world fits his politics. It is this which piqued my interest.
In a previous review published in these pages, I was fairly ruthless in my remarks about Neal Asher's Orbus, a book which was so cack-handed in part because of what I called its "soft-headed" politics. At the timid reviewers' dinner party, cutlery was shifted uncomfortably; a few napkins were thrown loosely, if violently, onto the table. One of them belonged to a commenter identifying himself as one Neal Asher: responding to a previous comment about the danger of authors grinding axes at the expense of nuance, he replied, "Tristan, that very often depends on which axe is being ground, and which axe it is the reviewer's preference." I defended myself against this implied criticism elsewhere, but I may as well also do so in this review: I am open to perspectives other than my own, and the reason I chose to read and review Count to a Trillion was precisely that it had the potential to offer an intelligent testing ground for politics in their own way more extreme even than Asher's. Wright might be wrong-headed by most measures, but he is not soft-headed. This is not a simple novel—in fact, it buckles under its own unnecessary complications.
The novel's opening section is easily its best. It takes place in a territory formerly known as Texas, a wild place at the edges of a resurgent United States of America, and only just emerging from the awful consequences of a counter-measure deployed internationally against a biological attack by (of course) Jihadists. "The future did not arrive," Wright intones in the novel’s first words—something of an impish rejoinder given the intended Stapledonian scale of this new series. What he means, of course, is that the future promised to us by Golden Age science fiction—a future of jetpacks, interstellar travel, and attractive people in jumpsuits—has failed to materialize. It is a future promised, too, to the novel's protagonist, the improbably monikered Menelaus Illation Montrose. The young Menelaus watches a cartoon called Asymptote, which bears a striking resemblance to the animated Star Trek: "bold Captain Buck Sterling, the ever-dispassionate half-robot half-human Cyrano Widget, the ever-passionate planet-doctor Erasmus Hume (but one and all called him "Sawbones")" (p. 17). When his strict, doctrinaire mother forces Menelaus to delete his comic book files, Menelaus loses the thread of the narrative: he will never reach the conclusion of Asymptote's future and becomes trapped in a dreary present without ambition or romance.
Still, the novel doesn't lead us immediately to understand that his mother is wrong in this: hooked on zippy comic books, Menelaus becomes convinced that his collection of classic novels, including Moby Dick, must have been hacked because they had "added a lot of boring stuff about cutting up whales" (p. 16); when she responds to her son's protests that Asymptote represents science and the potential of tomorrow, she says, "This is pre-digested piffle for children . . . Neverneverland and Shangri-La and Utopia" (p. 17). The novel itself, opening as it does with the broken promise of a brighter future, has already told us this is true; its subsequent events will prove similarly more dystopic and difficult than Gene Roddenberry allowed. On the other hand, the extremism which powers her dogmatism is not religion but Darwinism: "Men must die so that the race grows strong," she chants with all the power of prayer. "Darwinian selection favors weaknesses in women; for the ones who were strong enough to fight back against their rough husbands, captors, and ravishers in the Paleolithic days, those would not have reproduced, would they have?" (pp. 18-19)
If it strikes the reader of this review as odd that Wright produces science fiction which depicts without much subtlety one of our scientific shibboleths as a damaging fanaticism, they will be alarmed that there is more of this to come. Nevertheless, Count to a Trillion begins atmospherically: whatever the reader's political opposition to Wright, and however Aunt Sallyish his characterization of Darwinian thinking, here is a future where Darwin's thought has been perverted into a necessary mantra of bare and brute survivalism, in which it can make sense that a young boy weaned on SF can vow to defeat Darwin within the first twenty pages. It is a world in which a weakened USA has given way to less democratic, and yet more productive, forms of government in India and, oddly, Spain (there's an icky discomfort about the Hispanic menace throughout). Menelaus signs up to a space program powered by the technological marvels produced by these "ancient civilizations," though it is rigidly hierarchical and places poor, irrelevant Caucasians such as Menelaus at the bottom of the pile.
For every malevolent insistence that "Hispanic" or "Hindi" science is more "subtle" than Western, however, there is a clanging moment of either obstinence or ignorance: "The pilot was a Spaniard named Del Azarchel," Wright informs us of mankind's first manned flight to another star. "His first name was Ximen, which Menelaus could not pronounce, so Menelaus called him 'Blackie', a nickname that suited him in more ways than one" (p. 30). It is in increasingly frequent moments like this that all of Wright's sound groundwork is ruptured by a great tremor of authorial incompetence, a consistent inability or unwillingness sensitively to handle his own future. That is, the word of Count to a Trillion supports Wright; but, having fashioned it, he does not support it.
Menealus proceeds to put into action his challenge to Darwin. The mission of which he is part is not just to reach an alien star, but to explore the orbiting Monument, an artifact not entirely unlike 2001's monoliths, and across the surface of which is etched the sum knowledge of a preternaturally advanced alien culture. Menelaus unilaterally concludes that the human brain is insufficient to the task of decoding the complex language scored into the vast surface of this impossible object—and thus resolves to inject his own brain with a cocktail of totipotent cells and ribosomes, in order to increase its computing power. The (naturally) all-male crew dispute the wisdom of his plan, disputing the need for post-human computational power: "We are the products of evolution," one argues, "therefore by definition we cannot be in a position to regard evolution objectively, reflect on it, or question its wisdom" (p. 38). Menelaus's response is a stubborn "Says Who?", and he compares the plunge into tomorrow to the quests of knights-errant. That is, the future of not just the mission but of humankind is decided by one rather arrogant, thoroughly self-satisfied, breach of the consensus. I mentioned that Wright's universe allows him to be himself, right?
If all this leads you to understand that much of Count to a Trillion occurs as dialogue, and that much of the dialogue occurs as sermon, screed, or rhetoric, then you'd be right. Indeed, Menealus's experiment backfires, and he is put into a century-long sleep, awaking only when his fellow crewmen have returned to Earth from the stars and used their new knowledge, and unrivaled firepower, to gather an errant humankind under the management of a single ubermensch, in the shape of good old "Blackie." All of this does not happen immediately, however: first we are treated to tens of pages of flashback, to Menelaus's days as a hired gun and a country lawyer, then further back to the launch of a probe in the early 2000s, or the Starvation Winter of the early 2200s. This is the novel's first great wobble—whilst the flashbacks add to the solid worldbuilding of those opening pages, and contain some of the most compelling moments in the book, their place in the narrative is not indicated by their place in the structure. Readers of far-future SF are used, of course, to dealing with jumps in time; but the best writers of this genre offer elegance and differentiation in equal measure. Wright tends towards both more clumsy joins and more featureless textures: Count to a Trillion, however much it jinks and weaves, does so in the same preacherly voice: "The Wars of Religion of the late Twenty-First century were more brutal and more reckless than the Wars of Economic Theory from the Twentieth," Wright recounts, "because the main purpose of the belligerents (first on one, but eventually on both sides of the conflict) was not to preserve honor, gain terrain, or win political concessions, or for any rational reason, but to wipe out as many infidels as possible, as cruelly as possible, in order to please a particularly cruel God" (p. 76). This sort of sentence captures the metier of Wright's natural voice.
So, too, does the fact that this lengthy preamble covers just the first quarter of his novel. It's hard not to ascribe this, too, to the author's difficulty with structure: a wealth of incident and moral debate is squeezed into just shy of a hundred pages of veering, densely packed incident, whereupon follows a little shy of three hundred further pages of reiterated conflict and woeful plotting. It feels as if Wright has conceived his series before he has conceived its story, and that Count to a Trillion is an unwieldy, inappropriate answer to the question of how to lift the reader from the present to his Stapledonian futures. Whole sections of story are ignored for yet another scene in which Del Azarchel, or one of his proliferating avatars, debates humanity with his erstwhile crewmate, and how it might be pushed and persecuted to its supposed advancement: Del Azarchel lionizes the imagination of Man, his limitless potential; Menelaus comes to the conclusion that the Monument is a Do Not Disturb sign, an extraterrestrial warning ("It does not say: welcome to the stars. It says: you belong to us" (p. 149)). One of Del Azarchel's sinecures argues, like Menelaus's long-dead mother, that, if they are to take root, innovations in human longevity require the destruction of the older bloodlines; Meneleaus chooses to opt out entirely from so advanced a civilization and live in a log cabin in the woods, deciding that all a free man needs is a few books, a shooting iron, and a printing press (would this were a flippant characterization).
All this and more—the post-human intelligence at work inside Menelaus which occasionally possesses him, Del Azarchel's increasing insanity as he pursues a twisted Darwinism to its brutally logical conclusion, or even Menelaus's disastrously depicted love affair ("The kiss Menelaus and Rania had exchanged before the Pope still burned on his lips" (p. 297))—is conveyed in the same grinding, featureless voice. Perhaps in part this is deliberate: at the heart of this novel, in which early on we learn of the new science of Cliometry, which can reduce any social or cultural trend to a simple equation, is an endlessly circling debate about science versus romance, about the incompleteness of flat factualism. "But how do you make a symbol for honesty, for justice, for beauty, for love, for any abstraction?" the paper-thin love interest Rania asks Menelaus, dismissing his explanations of game theory and the Selfish Gene as partial (p. 243). At another juncture, Del Azarchel defends his grand, elitist plan for the planet: "Our methods are part of a self-correcting structure," he says, reducing human interaction to a mechanistic faith in the manner recently satirized by the documentarian Adam Curtis in his All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. Indeed, what is "human" is shown to be more elusive than mere categorizations when the biological Del Azarchel—vengeful and bent on ends rather than means—is shown to be colder and more inert than his digital, post-human copy, who refuses to commit murder "because I have given my word" (p. 209).
In that passage, Wright shrewdly describes one Del Azarchel as human and the other as inhuman, but this sort of wit and cheek is sadly missing from vast swathes of his novel. The book is, of course, an argument for romance over science, but it is so dreary and po-faced that it never captures the joy of mystery. Its version of Darwinism is a straw man's sketch of the theory, and for a novel supposedly so interested in the bursting beauty of humanity its depictions of ethnic difference are cartoonish, and of diversity non-existent (shades, of course, of that tokenism "debate"). In my review of Orbus, I wrote that Asher's politics were soft-headed, but did so in contrast to an alternative iteration of reactionary politics partially stated: perniciousness. Ultimately, Count to a Trillion is hoisted precisely by that petard: what might have been an interesting novel set in a well-pitched world becomes an exercise in self-assertion. Darwin was wrong, elites can’t be trusted, and the flame of humanity is held by a white, Christian Texan with a penchant for (wildly inconsistent) demotic idiom. This novel is not an attempt to understand and encompass those parts of ourselves which we should take through the singularity; it is an attempt to define and proscribe them. The blank prose and blanker soul of this novel leads the reader to experience what it must be like to follow the imperative of its title: it feels a long way from its beginning to its end.