Nutshell: This is a good book. Go buy it now, and get a couple copies to give to unsuspecting friends.
The large pile of books I bought last year has been barely touched – I did get to read Mike Flynn’s excellent Eifelheim, reviewed here, as well as some Gene Wolf that crept into the pile of its own volition, and several good books for a Catholic reading group I’m in. But wasn’t making much of a dent.
But not anymore! I’ve got my Great Books man-cave set up, with all the stuff off the floor and into a bookcase atop a large desk, where a couple hundred books to be read or reread sit at approximately eye level, taunting me. So, cracked into John C. Wright’s Count to a Trillion, the first book of an epic six book space opera.
First off, the experience of reading this book brought me back to my time in high school – in a good way. Back then, I didn’t give a crap about schoolwork (have I mentioned I’m a terrible student?) and so, when a book grabbed me, I’d read almost till sunrise if that’s what it took to finish it. Well, over the few days it took to read Count to a Trillion, I twice stayed up past midnight reading (I get up before 6 every day, and have a job and dependents and stuff, so the ‘read until 4:30 a.m.’ thing ain’t happening – but 1:30 is the moral equivalent at this point in my life.) That’s a pretty gripping book to do that! AND – I picked up The Hermetic Millennia immediately upon reaching the end and its cruel cliffhanger. I’ll review volume 2 in a day or two when I’m done.
The chief characteristics of Wright’s novels that I’ve read so far:
– There’s a good to great short story idea presented in passing about every 5 -10 pages. The dude has one fertile imagination;
– You will need a dictionary. I’ve got a huge vocabulary by earthly standards, but I bow to Mr. Wright. And they’re good words, too, not just flashy junk. One is grateful to have learned them;
– He makes up words by the bushel. Of course, every sci fi classic has new words for strange races and places and such – by having so many ideas packed so densely, Wright needs a lot of such words. He has a particular affinity for long, florid names;
– He cuts you no slack. If you thought Moby Dick or Last of the Mohicans was a tough read, then you’ll likely find this a little challenging. It is not written at a 6th grade level.
– but mostly: Whoa. The cool new ideas are coming so hot and fast, sometimes I needed to slow down and ponder. You know how a good Star Trek episode will have maybe two Whoa moments? Where the set up is a whoa moment and the resolution is a second whoa? Count to a Trillion is like all of the Star Trek OS episodes compressed into one 450 page book. Whoa.
Based on this, you will have trouble with this book if USA Today strikes you as the standard of clear English, or if the occasional wild word or name disturbs you, or if you’d like your new ideas ladled out slowly. I found myself thinking of Jack Vance and Cordwainer Smith, both of whom just throw you in the deep end of their stories and expect you to swim, and have great affinity for the sound of florid names and words, and have vivid and unusual ideas of grand sweep. So if you like those guys, Wright should be up your alley.
As the first book of a 6 book grand space opera, Count to a Trillion has to establish heroes and villains and set up a cosmic-level threat, and then leave you hanging so you’ll read the next book. These requirements are expertly met. Menelaus Montrose, our classically named hero, is shown to be loveable, cantankerous and heroic. Rania, our space princess, is beautiful beyond words and charming and brilliant and needs some serious rescuing. Blackie Del Azarchel is established as a suitably villainous villain, with a sympathetic back story that makes him and his hatred of Montrose real.
And there are cool weapons, an alien artifact, space ships, dramatic fight scenes, and explosions, in addition to a wonderful space princess and gun-slinging hero. But this is not Star Wars – there’s also philosophical arguments*, plausible (more or less) technology, and a challenge that makes defeating the Empire sound like a mop-up operation.
The source of philosophical tension is that Montrose is the 23rd century manifestation of a cowboy living on the frontier, with all the independence, nobility, honor and horse sense that entails. His task is not just to defeat his enemies and their threat to the world, but to defeat their philosophies – philosophies that attempt to hide and excuse the pride, greed and brutality that drive them.
On to the actual story: Montrose, a Texan and a mathematical genius from a large poor family of ten brother and widowed mother, works as a lawyer specializing in out of court settlements – gunfight. He wins a particular duel, but is seriously wounded (the description of the duel, the weapons and armor is both very clever and amusing). A mysterious foreigner rescues him, and pays for his rehabilitation. He is sent off to California to be educated, and is selected for a space voyage based on his mathematical genius.
Every member of the crew is a genius, as one of the two main goals of the trip is to decipher the Monument, an alien artifact orbiting a nearby star, a star inexplicably made of anti-matter. Once the mission is under way, Montrose injects himself with brain-enhancement chemicals he’s concocted based on some partially deciphered portions of the Monument. It sort of works and doesn’t.
To avoid spoilers, we’ll just say the trip has mixed results. The rest of the book concerns how those mixed results occurred, the difficulties they raise, and how Menelaus attempts to right them.
What are you waiting for? Go read it! I’m planning to pick up a couple copies of this book and Eifelheim to press upon friends who need them but don’t know they do yet. Go, and do likewise.
* no, Yoda’s passing on his “wisdom” to Luke does not qualify as philosophical argument.