As science fiction has transitioned from pulp trash to critical respectability, it’s lost some of the insane sense of fun that characterized early forms of the genre. It used to be more common to see stories focusing on extreme views of contemporary politics, featuring men more brilliant than everyone else, having adventures greater than ever before experienced, pressing the boundaries of present scientific theory. Science fiction’s shift toward more grounded, grittier, internally consistent (and often dystopic) stories is probably for the best, but it’s also good to be reminded of how it used to work.
Count To A Trillion is that pulpy reminder. Its hero, Menelaus Montrose, is a champion duelist, the fastest draw in a “Texmerica” where the future never happened. He’s also a genius mathematician, which seems to stand in for any kind of higher-level analysis in the book, and that genius grants him a berth on Earth’s only interstellar vessel on a voyage to an antimatter planet. During the trip, Menelaus gives himself brain damage trying to understand an alien monument; after the trip, Earth has access to seemingly limitless antimatter energy, but that gives its controllers the power to enact a tyrannical rule.
While this is the stuff of a science-fiction romp, author John C. Wright also frames the novel as a discussion of the role of science fiction and scientific ideals. The book opens with Menelaus becoming inspired by watching a Star Trek-like cartoon, where racism and sexism have been eliminated by the pursuit of knowledge, and the show’s heroic patriarch always finds ways for good to triumph over evil. These dreams of a better future speak directly to the power of science fiction, but in spite of Menelaus’ beliefs, the future isn’t better. He grows up a world where Darwinism has become a dogmatic religion, and racism and religious wars have led to a “jihad” virus that wipes out much of the human race before a failed global-warming countermeasure freezes the disease. The world Menelaus returns to after more than a century between the stars isn’t much better, as a cabal of his fellow space-travelers have seized the planet and operate it as an aristocracy for their benefit. It’s never entirely clear whether Count To A Trillion is deliberately subverting its protagonist’s ideals, or if it believes they’ve never been implemented, but the book’s lack of thematic resolution is one of its charms.
Wright moves breathlessly from one exciting idea to the next, using science fiction to examine the biggest ideas he can. On one page, he might discuss the need for and possibility of “post-human” evolution, while the next deals with the political implications of widespread, intentional social change. The book’s excitement and thematic ambition are reminiscent of novels like Dan Simmons’ Ilium, although Count To A Trillion doesn’t fully reach the same highs. Characterization of anyone but Menelaus tends to fall by the wayside, and the book leans too heavily on its pulp roots when it makes its only female characters a mother and a princess. But it’s hard to argue too much with the book’s exhilaration. It’s about big ideas and questions without answer, but it’s also in love with how wonderfully science fiction can engage with those big ideas.