The Big Idea: John C. Wright

One of the things about science fiction as a genre is that it has the ability — some might even suggest the responsibility — to think big. Galaxy-spanning big. With his latest novel Count to a Trillion, author John C. Wright is taking that ability and running with it, positing a civilization that not only reaches for the stars but in a very real way involves the stars themselves. Is this ambitious display of world-building an example of authorial hubris? In his Big Idea piece, Wright suggest that in fact it’s the opposite emotion that spurred him to paint such on such a large narrative canvas.


Every novel has a conceit, but not every novelist is conceited. The germ of the conceit for Count to a Trillion was actually an exercise in humility. I had written a previous trilogy of novels called The Golden Age, set in the far future, which received very generous critical and public reception, including attention from the Transhumanist movement, who took the ideas more optimistically than I would. They envision the science fictional promises of brain augmentation, downloading consciousness, and posthumanity as happening in the near future, perhaps in our lifetimes.

I do not fault them the dream. After all, did not the Wright Brothers make real Jules Verne’s Clipper of the Clouds? But I wondered at the optimism.

Not as famous as the Wright Brothers, after all, is Lt. Thomas Selfridge, the first man in history ever to die in a plane crash, but by no means the last. The conquest of the air filled graveyards with pilots. Great futures exact great prices. If we have not conquered space, it is perhaps because we are unwilling to fill our graveyards with the number of astronauts such an ambitious dream requires.

We are the first generation raised on future fiction, and disappointed when it came. The Year of 2001 is come and gone, and everyone wonders: why are flying machines a reality but flying cars a daydream?

Where is the spaceship Discovery and the self-aware HAL 9000 computer? Why do we have only eight planets in our Solar System, when our parents had nine? Why have we not been contacted by highly-advanced alien overlords?

The answer is that your flying car was impounded when your naked teenage son while drunk rammed it into the armpit of the Statue of Liberty. Homicidal HAL 9000 is in Gitmo being circuitboarded. We have eight planets because of the National Debt, and Pluto was repossessed by the agency.  Our alien overlords long ago splashed down and made treaties with the Dolphins, Whales, and Giant Squid, but are so cheesed off about the loss of Pluto that they refuse to speak to us. Meanwhile, we suffer acute Pluto depravation.

OK, so that is not the real answer. Nonetheless, here in the Twenty-First Century, the atomic bomb as daydreamed by H.G. Wells is a grim reality but the atomic drive of the Skylark of Space as written by E.E. Doc Smith is a daydream, which seems, if anything, to be fading.

With this in mind, I set myself the task of trying to write a tale that reaches for the glories of a space opera future, but dwells on the dangers, risks, and disappointments, and above all, the time involved. So, call it the opposite of my first trilogy. I wanted to write a humble, or, if you prefer, a realistic or pessimistic version of Skylark of Space. (I am not hiding the homage: my villain is named after E.E. Smith’s magnificent Blackie DuQuesne.) The task was to write a Hard SF Space Opera. One difficulty is that the two genres are somewhat opposite to each other.

Space Opera involves larger than life characters heroes and villains, cosmic wars and struggles, mysterious aliens, space princesses, wonder and awe. Whereas Hard SF is harder to write, eschewing faster than light drive, mind reading, transporter beams, or anything else Hard SF finds hard to swallow.

What I thought would be the hardest part was easiest: that is, I wanted to create a space opera sense of wonder using real astronomical wonders. I wanted to write the battle-scene involving the collision between Milky Way and Andromeda (I am not making that up! But it will not happen in our lifetime. Nor in the lifetime of Sol, our star); and to explain the true and sinister purpose of the Great Attractor toward which all local galaxies in our cluster are streaming (Also not made up! There is such a thing. It is in the Virgo Cluster); and to explain the dwarf star V886 Centauri, whose core is a diamond of degenerate matter of 10 billion trillion trillion carets (also not made up! Like Dan Brown, I would like to claim that all description of artwork, architecture, documents, astronomical objects, Hermetic secrets and Roman Catholic conspiracies in the novel are accurate, except that the Knights Hospitalier of Malta are fictional, or, at least, they do not wear power armor.)

Another question a disappointed generation asks is: where are our alien overlords? Why haven’t they landed and shepherded us out of the Childhood’s End of human history as envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke and brought us up past the Singularity as envisioned by Vernor Vinge? If life in space is as ubiquitous as even cautious estimates guess it must be, where is everyone?

I wanted the reason to be as reasonable as a Hard SF answer and as outrageous as a space opera answer.

So my first Big Idea is that the aliens are maintaining radio silence due to war. Slower than light war fought between galaxies takes a long time to promulgate, and the cosmic chessmen move slowly and hugely indeed.

Post-Singularity war between star systems where every atom of matter is being used to house intelligence and to direct energy use enforces strict frugality. Too thrifty to spread radio noise in expanding globes, instead the overlords merely train their telescopes, or erect monuments, at various points in the Orion Arm which any mildly curious spacefaring race would be sure to visit. And if we are not curious enough (for is not curiosity a sign of intelligence?) and not adventurous enough to launch an interstellar expedition, why, then we fail the cosmic IQ test.

A second Big Idea is that they are not trying to hide from us, but it never occurred to them that our astronomers would interpret red giant stars and supernovae as natural phenomenon, or that we would invent an abortive theory to explain the natural growth and development of novae, and not perceive that the stellar ecology, particularly the production of heavier-than-iron elements, is entirely artificial. And some of the objects we deem red giants are much brighter stars, viewed through the shells of their Dyson Spheres emitting waste heat. I invented for this book a corollary of Clarke’s dictum. In Count to a Trillion, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. All the things our astronomers think are nebulae are war debris, or star-creation nurseries. You did not think the Black Hole at the core of the galaxy was natural, did you?

The third Big Idea come when I wondered what the ultra-posthumans do with the posthumans once they pass beyond their intellectual threshold, and what the meta-ultraposthumans do with them, and what the trans-metaultraposthumans do with them. There would have to be a means to communicate across boundaries of vastly greater intelligences levels, if, for example, a planet coated with nanotech diamond awoke to self-awareness and overheard a Dyson Sphere made of self-aware matter talking to a galaxy which had achieved unification of consciousness. They must have a code, a notation, some method of communicating to alien beings with whom they had nothing in common—and it would have to be a method of communication so simple, that even a posthuman mind could translate it.

First Contact stories often speculate that the only common language we share with aliens is science. We all inhabit one universe, after all. But if so, any First Contact message would have to hold in its header information and introductory phrases the secrets of a science far in advance of the clumsy knowledge a feral race unknown to the galactic collaboration knows.

And the final Big Idea for this book was to explore what happened when the human race, right on the cusp of the evolutionary change between human and posthuman, stumbled across the message before we were ready for it.

Count to a Trillion does not take place in the cosmic spaces nor across the uncounted eons this speculation must cover. It deals only with the final Big Idea question of how earthmen, in our present cruel and unevolved state, deal with secrets of life and death and mind and matter beyond our scope. The scale is limited to Earth, and the time runs only a few centuries hence.

Other matters of human evolution and devolution, duels between conflicting psychohistorians with alternate visions of the future, and the cost of first contact, needs must wait for planned future volumes.


Count to a Trillion: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog.

60 Comments on “The Big Idea: John C. Wright”

  1. Sounds like a pretty interesting read and one that intersects with some of my own concerns with transhumanism (besides the concerns of feasibility). I’ll definitely pick this one up.

  2. Goddamn! Ambitious, much?

    I thought Twilight of the Gods was one of the 2 best stories in last year’s Gardner Dozois collection (along with Nicola Griffith’s It Takes Two). It was just outstanding, thanks for writing it. I’ll be checking this series out, if I ever get the time!

  3. [Deleted because this person’s being an ass, and not on point relative to the book — JS]

  4. here in the Twenty-First Century, the atomic bomb as daydreamed by H.G. Wells is a grim reality but the atomic drive of the Skylark of Space as written by E.E. Doc Smith is a daydream, which seems, if anything, to be fading

    Sadly we had to make people so terrified of the former that it could never be used because of the cold war, and that has made us all too afraid of the words “atomic” and “nuclear” that we cannot countenance they could ever be used for positive purpose. Surviving the former cost us the latter.

    We’ll get over it though, might take a few decades, but we will get over it. Then the golden age of space can really start. Until then, your book sounds like a fantastic way to pass the time.

  5. I read the Golden Age Trilogy years ago (twice in immediate succession) and found it one of the most significant and fascinating works dealing with posthumanity I’ve yet read—right up there with Stross’s Accelerando and Blindsight by Peter Watts. I’ve wondered for a long time how Wright’s approach to transhumanist topics might (or might not) change following his much talked about religious conversion. I look forward to reading it—even though I rather vociferously disagree with Wright on practically every moral, political or religious subject I’ve seen him write about.

  6. I’ve been trying to figure out how (and why) one would fight an interstellar war, especially if you don’t have FTL travel. This book just went on my to-read list.

  7. Folks:

    This thread’s already seen three deletions because people apparently seem determined to go off topic. So I’ll make it easy for you: The comment thread here is about the Big Idea entry and/or the specific book the entry’s about. Please try to focus on those things. If you can’t or won’t, skip commenting. Thank you.

  8. This seems very interesting. I LOVE sci-fi stories that think big and I LOVE hard-sci-fi. The premise of the book reminds me a bit of William H. Keith’s “The Weapon” story which also dealt with impossibly huge scopes, the collision of Andromeda and Milky Way etc. Cool stuff, this is going on my reading list.

  9. [Deleted, as it is off topic. Folks, if you want to complain to me about my selection process for Big Ideas, the way to do it is via e-mail — JS]

  10. Cover: awesome. Big idea: awesome. Sounds like Stross meets Vinge meets Clarke and they have a nanomolecular fistfight over Fermi’s Paradox. I love what I’m hearing about this book (Brenda Cooper, Michael Flynn, on and on).

    At the risk of venturing off topic… is there an audiobook in the works for this?

  11. iirc, I think the voyager probe contained, among other things, visual representations for count systems and, I want to say the first few prime numbers. I think it would be difficult to translate certain linguistic/conscious concepts such as “I” or “we” to a cometely alien race. But I think no matter what a race’s basis for sentience is (ego, hive, collective, sybiote, whatever) I think they would all have to have the ability to count. so, communication via math makes sense to me. I dont think that communication of science would be terribly difficult between humans and post singularity identities. Same with post singularity with post-post singularity. or human with trans human, or trans with trans trans human. History shows slow human development from 5k bc to about 1k ad. but part of that slownesss, I think, was due to a lousy comms channel and monoplization of ideslas that results when information transfer (writing) is hard. I think part of the reason our science development has sped up in the last hundred years is because print, radio, tv, phones, and finally the internet means science progress doesnt have to wait until the few appointed wizards in the ivory tower understand the new idea. anyone, anywhere can see the idea and once one person understands it, it is easy to transmit that understanding to others. If trans-trans-trans-humans tried to communicate with earth today, all it takes is one person in 7billion to figure out what they are saying and then everyone will know via a youtube video.

  12. “the atomic bomb as daydreamed by H.G. Wells is a grim reality”

    I thought the atomic bomb part didn’t appear in the book and first appeared in the 1960 movie? In which case, not really H.G. Wells daydreaming. Aside from that, sold on the book.

  13. I’ll be buying the kindle edition tonight just from what I read in the introductory paragraph. That sounds exactly like one of the SF genres I love. I’m already hooked.

  14. > Why do we have only eight planets in our Solar System, when our parents had nine?

    Because we fit one of them into the awesome set of dwarf planets they didn’t know they only had one of. We’re going for the whole set!

    > And some of the objects we deem red giants are much brighter stars, viewed through the shells of their Dyson Spheres emitting waste heat.

    It has to be the same overall brightness unless the DS is accumulating energy at a pretty drastic rate. Not impossible, of course, if there’s a war on…

  15. I think this book sounds like it might be fun, and I’m inclined to get it, but I do have to wonder– what gets alien races so cheesed off that they go to such lengths. Are good colonization sites so rare that it’s worth such an investment? Perhaps they have a philosophical difference.

  16. Dyson Spheres! You’ve got me hooked. I have a whole set of Stephen Baxter novels arriving in the post today, but after I’ve worked my way through them, this is next on my list.

  17. This Big Idea piece had me early and I didn’t need to read an excert to add it to my Amazon cart. This is my kind of SF.

    Done and done.

  18. Martin Savage:

    Lots of authors are controversial, and there are places for folks to talk about them. For the purposes of this thread, however, as noted, the focus is on the Big Idea entry and the book itself.


    The artist’s name is John Harris. Yes, it’s the same fellow as who does my Tor OMW book covers.

  19. “the atomic bomb as daydreamed by H.G. Wells is a grim reality”

    I thought the atomic bomb part didn’t appear in the book and first appeared in the 1960 movie? In which case, not really H.G. Wells daydreaming. Aside from that, sold on the book.

    I think the author was referring to Wells’ 1914 book, The World Set Free, which predicted a war between what were close approximations of the WWII sides around 1950. The war involved the use of atomic bombs.

    Now, these bombs were small enough to heave over the side of a biplane and Wells didn’t get some of the effects quite right. And really – predicting the future is what SF is all about in some ways. I teach a class on the atomic bomb, and when I introduce this book the thing I emphasize to my students is not that Wells got some of the predictions right and some wrong, but the fact that within a decade of somebody discovering the nucleus of the atom, someone else had figured out that if you split it just right you could kill a lot of people with it.

    This says something about the atomic bomb – the idea of it is not that hard (even if the practical difficulties are). It’s out there, waiting for someone to pick it up and run with it.

    It also says something about us as a species.

  20. I’ve never read Wright before but I’m so going to read this. And then, I suspect, I’m going to read through his back catalogue. This sounds fantastic!

  21. I have too many damn books and I’m always happy when the Big Idea is some urban-fiction with emo vampires, because I hate those books and have no desire to read them. I find this to be very cost-effective.

    Hard SF Space Opera on the other hand?

    That pretty much pushes all my buttons. Well done (damn you).

  22. Thanks, Dave. Looks like I need to expand my HG Wells reading horizon beyond The Time Machine.

  23. Well, well, well. Looks like I will be making another contribution to Amazon’s bottom line. And hopefully Mr. Wright’s.

    But most of all, mine. Because sometimes you can buy happiness.

  24. I rarely pay attention to the Big Idea columns. I usually skim them to see if I might be interested, but usually move on. This one caught me. Hard SF with solid “what if” questions, huge scope drawn down to human dimensions, and nods to epic works like Doc Smith.

    I look forward to reading it.

  25. The Golden Age and the Chronicles of Chaos are some of my favorite fiction ever, though very different from each other in tone and scope. Though I haven’t read either in years, they still come up with relative frequency in conversation with friends who have also read them. I just popped in to say that I was looking forward to the next book by Wright, and will likely be picking this up. Card and Wright taught me that a person’s blog is separate from their fiction, and I prefer to judge them separately.

    I specifically stopped reading this Big Idea once I decided to buy it–I’m very conscious of spoilers–but what I read was interesting and gives me hope for a thrilling tale. Thanks John!

  26. I think I’ve been waiting for a book like this for decades. One question: is this stand alone or a trilogy? I only ask so I know if I have to keep looking in the future.

  27. Wendy – its a series. I’ve read the first novel, thought it great, but it does end on a cliffhanger. The Jacksonian primary character is amazing though, and I want to know how this story will end desperately.

  28. Really looking forward to this one. Ever since I read Awake in the Night, I’ve grabbed up everything written by Wright I could find, and this one is the kind of story I love.

  29. The Chronicles of Chaos were excellent. Of Wright’s politics I’ll just say that he’s not gone off the deep end to join Orson Scott Card, and his work is still largely enjoyable. I did however find the premise of the Golden Age – a scarcity economy in a post-technical society of godlike AI – flawed at a basic level, and therefore jarring. I also have major philosophical differences with transhumanism, most of which boil down to the fact that we only just got around to killing our old gods, it’s hardly time to create deus ex machina to rule over us. I am a secular humanist, no “trans” about it.

    However, “Count to a Trillion” sounds very interesting, and I’ll certainly look into it. It is possible to create entertaining fiction despite philosophical and political differences, and most of the time Wright manages it.

  30. Mr. Wright has never disappointed whether he were reimagining Stapledon, van Vogt, Zelazny, Vance, or William Hope Hodgson, all with a fresh tang and brio his own.

    I look forward to owning this novel.

  31. Ooo I like the concept. I like all sort of sci-fi (well all sorts of books tbh) and dont have particular problems with hyper-drives etc but I have been looking for something which might relate to a more realistic view of what might happen. I’ll give it a go

  32. Wow. And that so few days after I was giving feedback about how I usually don’t care for the big idea entries. Having a *BIG* idea like this come by every so often makes the entire series worth it for me. I wonder if my local bookstore has this in already… guess I know what I’m doing during my lunch break. :)
    (‘course, it helps that I’m predisposed to like the author based on his previous books (ranging from highly original to pure excellent), but I do think that the hook of this big idea would’ve drawn me in regardless of the author.)

  33. Sounds very cool! I’m guessing from your description that the wars are about “who gets to embody in this stretch of matter”…?

    any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. : Heh… I’ve been thinking about that possibility for a while! (Serves me right for sitting on my ass with it ;-) ).

  34. Heinlein (Red Planet) is the reason I started reading science fiction. John C. Wright (The Golden Age) is the reason I began reading science fiction again.

  35. The idea of “red giants” being Dyson spheres giving off waste heat is interesting, but it does imply that they are at a fairly high temperature, around 800-1000 K. Of course, chemical reactions would be much faster at 1000 K, which might imply a high speed for chemically mediated information processing, a convenient thing for post-singularity entities. But I don’t think they could be carbon-based, and I’m pretty sure they couldn’t be in aqueous solution. Perhaps they would have to have uploaded to silicon for real? Imagine all those silicon-based minds running so hot that they glowed.

  36. hmmm, where to start? a) the sun won’t even have left the main sequence when the Milky Way collides with Andromeda in 3-5 billion years, b) V886 Centauri seems to be composed primarily of degenerate carbon, which is, NOT, repeat NOT, diamond (unless you know of diamonds with a density of maybe a billion grams/cc). I’ll stop except to state the obvious: when a hard SF author makes mistakes about the science we know NOW (and no, I didn’t steal that from JS), I stop reading.

  37. Interesting. I’m a hard SF fanatic and this is the first I’ve heard of Wright. Well, that’s what comes from giving up my Locus subscription years ago.

    Sounds intriguing enough to buy. I’m still looking for a Big Idea novel/series to match Gregory Benford’s triple hard Galactic Center Saga, which remains awesome decades after publication.

  38. Was off to buy it after reading “Hard SF Space Opera” but Amazon (or publisher) is being a PITA and not allowing it in my region. Any idea of a possible ETA for people not living in the USA?

  39. “Of Wright’s politics I’ll just say that he’s not gone off the deep end to join Orson Scott Card, and his work is still largely enjoyable. ”

    Have you read his blog? He’s pretty firmly in Card territory. But he’s also a terrific writer. Personally, I don’t mind reading books by people who hold views I abhor. I’d find it boring to only read works by people I agree with.

  40. If I had to restrict my SF reading to only product by authors whose political and ideological affiliation flattered my own, my book shelves would be fairly barren. I think it speaks well of Scalzi that he was willing to feature COUNT TO A TRILLION despite political, ideological, or religious differences with Wright. Coincidentally, Scalzi’s blog and Wright’s blog are the two blogs I find most interesting and on which I comment fairly frequently; at least when it comes to topics other than the actual biz and practice of fiction-writing. Both authors are intelligent and make very interesting points about life and the universe — often from opposite ends. I would suggest this is a Good Thing, as opposed to not. If all of Science Fiction (and its authors) were of Same Mind about all things, it would be a dreadfully dull, boring, and monochromatic place — wait, isn’t that what everyone currently says about Campbellian SF before the New Wave?

  41. Speaking more to the content of COUNT TO A TRILLION, this volume appears to have some aspects in common with Vernor Vinge’s books, A FIRE UPON THE DEEP and A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY. Both of which I enjoyed enormously, as space opera, and as concept books playing around with Big Ideas. This is what Science Fiction can do which few other kinds of fiction can: extrapolate — to the nth degree — from our present technological state, to a future state so vast, so different, so utterly fantastic, as to border on mythology. And it doesn’t hurt that the cover is splendid. I have an affinity for John Harris artwork. And this is no exception. No, we shouldn’t judge a book simply by its cover, but how can you argue with a cover as good as this one? Consider me very interested.

  42. Just from the description above, I’m sold. “Go big or go home”! Thanks for spreading the word. I don’t think I would have stumbled upon him myself even though consider myself a big SF fan. I’m a little bemused by a few of the personal comments about John Wright. Ah well, I guess you can’t please everyone. Read what you enjoy and enjoy what you read. Beyond that, keep it to yourself. Even if he got some of the physics wrong, what’s the big deal. What do we know absolutely with physics, cosmology, etc. I grew up “knowing” that there were 9 planets. Everyone around me insisted on that fact and I was penalized in school for not knowing that fact. I will, however, lay my own money on the “fact” that the universe is even more bizarre than Mr. Wright can imagine.

  43. Looks like a fantastic book and definitely headed to a Kindle near me. I am halfway through The Golden Age trilogy and liking a lot. This looks even more interesting in that the premise brings the kind of edginess that makes “Cryptic” by Jack McDevitt a real contender to displace “The Sentinal” by Arthur C. Clarke as my favorite short story of all time.

  44. I’ve just finished this book and I’ve never been more disappointed in how a book turned out. Until I read all the above comments I didn’t know of Wright’s politics so that wasn’t what disappointed me. No, instead I was disturbed by all the grammatical and spelling errors throughout the book and by how women, even the one woman who had a primary role, were treated by the men. I won’t be reading anything further by this author and it has nothing to do with his politics.

  45. Just finished giving “Count to a Trillion” and I have to say, wow. Just wow. It’s been awhile since I’ve read some genuinely good SF and Wright definately fit the bill again. I read his “Golden Age” series, so it is good to see he hasn’t lost his touch.

    Kind of funny how people are so hung up on their own political/ideological zealotry that they can’t acknowledge the skill of someone who dares to disagree with them. That his work is not your cup of tea is fine. But to dismiss Mr. Wright because he does not subscribe to whatever cause you have chained your wagons to is the height of pettiness.

    Also…Wendy? “How he treats women”? His works feature powerful women (in fact, in a genre polluted by misogyny, Wright is a breath of fresh air) . So I suggest you check out the rest of his books.

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