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.
JOHN C. WRIGHT:
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.