Today, I have the great pleasure and honor to interview the brilliant science fiction/fantasy author, John C. Wright. I’ve interviewed him in the past, and he is always fun and interesting to talk to, and his enthusiasm for his work, and the genre of science fiction, in general, always shines through.
John has the third novel in his amazing epic saga “Count to a Trillion” out now, The Judge of Ages by Tor/Forge, and I reviewed it elsewhere at this site. I’ll be asking him questions based on that novel, the other two books in the series, and possibly we’ll also touch on other novels which he’s written, like another favorite of mine, Orphans of Chaos, which was a finalist for the Nebula Award in 2005. It should have won, IMHO; perhaps The Judge of Ages will win one, or a Hugo; it’s that good, for sure.
Douglas Cobb: John, though most of the questions I’ll ask you during this interview will be about your latest novel in the “Count to a Trillion” series, The Judge of Ages, for our readers who are unfamiliar with the series, the main protagonist is Texan-born Menelaus Montrose, who has an encounter with an alien technology and is changed. Though he’s highly intelligent before, he becomes even more so, after the encounter.
Would you please tell our readers a bit more about the background of Montrose and how he encountered this alien technology while serving aboard the starship Hermetic, and maybe touch on who his arch-enemy is throughout the series, Ximen del “Blackie” Azarchel?
John C. Wright: I would be happy to oblige, but I warn you that even a simple explanation is fairly complex, and reveals much of the central mystery of the first volume beforehand. So, spoiler warning for all written below.
In the first book in the series, we are introduced to Menelaus Montrose, who lives in a future where the future did not arrive. The flying cars, superskyscrapers, atom-powered rayguns and warp-drive starships, and the better life science fiction stories promised his grandfathers never came to pass, but instead a future where the Balkanized United States has fallen to Third World stature and India and the South America are the new world powers.
But the world powers put aside their differences to fund the expedition of the starship ‘Hermetic’, with the help of a wealthy eccentric plutocrat from the microstate of Monaco name Prince Ranier, because evidence of a nonhuman intelligence, or superintelligence, has been found orbiting a star made of antimatter plasma fifty lightyears away.
This evidence takes the form of a sphere the size of a small moon called ‘The Monument’ covered with mathematical glyphs in repeating patterns: apparently a complete catalogue of all the laws of nature. The laws of nature are, of course, the only ‘Rosetta stone’ or common language between man and alien, since it is the only thing we have in common with them. But there are natural laws written there about the nature of the mind-body problem, the rules of thought and psychology, the laws of history, the universal laws of biology which apparently apply to all living things of all worlds whatsoever – and mankind cannot decipher it.
Our hero, Menelaus Montrose is the inventor of longterm cryonic suspension that makes the voyage possible must be invited along, despite that he is a member of a despised backwater land called Texas. Once the starship is under weigh, abetted and urged on by his best friend, the pilot Ximen “Blackie” del Azarchel, in a reckless act, Montrose injects himself with an experimental and illegal brain-augmenting chemical. And Montrose is horrifically successful, since his intelligence is doubled, but at the price of shattering his sanity. He turns himself into ‘Mr Hyde’ as he expands his mind to superhuman levels but loses his mind.
Menelaus Montrose awakens to life and sanity again a century or more later, on a world that enjoys world peace and a overabundance of cheap energy, and his friend, now old and gray Del Azarchel as the monarchic ruler and master of the world in all but name. The world is on the brink of a breakthrough and a new gold age, since the first superhuman artificial intelligence, called a ‘Xypotech’ or’Awakened Machine’is even now being readied to come online, and elevate human civilization to the next highest level of evolution. However, the nascent super intelligence seems to be suffering the same mental disorder as Montrose suffered while in his alter ego of Mr Hyde.
Montrose is told that Mr. Hyde was able to translate significant segments of the acres of hieroglyphs covering The Monument, enough to allow the crippled Hermetic expedition to make it back to earth, albeit with tragic losses, including the loss of Ranier, who had been the expedition leader and ship’s captain. However, the dead Captain’s daughter, Princess Rania, born during the expedition, is still alive, and is about to marry Del Azarchel.
Montrose’s first clue that something is terribly wrong is the fact that it had been an all-male expedition. There is no natural way Rania could have been born. What secrets of nonhuman super-science did the Hermeticists learn during the expedition? What did the Monument message actually say?
Mystery unfolds and reveals a deeper mystery, and Montrose discovers that his superintelligent but insane alter ego, Mr Hyde, wooed and wed Rania – an event his cure forced him utterly to forget – and his alter ego also read the real and horrifying message of the Monument: which reveals that mankind, by reading the Monument, has become the property of the Domination of the Hyades, a cluster of nine dozen stars 150 lightyears from Sol ruled by some form of unliving and undying machine intelligence.
The purpose for this enslavement is unknown, but the slave ships coming to haul human populations to far worlds will not arrive for thousands of years, since earthmen are not worth the energy cost to accelerate the ships to near lightspeed.
Once Montrose realizes who he is and what he has done, events force him into desperate, violent conflict with Del Azarchel, who wishes to cooperate with the Hyades, and collaborate with them. He wishes to force mankind along evolutionary lines to form a new race that will be amenable to the Hyades; Montrose vows to stop him.
Rania, whom both men love, has read further into the Monument than they. She knows that the Hyades is itself the slave race of the higher race seated in the M3 globular cluster outside the galaxy, 33900 lightyears away. The laws of the galactic collaboration provides that any race which has the stable institutions needed to engage in interstellar travel, trade and justice, must be manumitted. The only way to prove a race is capable of maintaining a civilization across the lightyears and centuries needed to be a starfaring race is to do it.
Knowing this, Rania steals the only working starship of Earth and departs for that remote extragalactic cloud of stars to plead for the salvation and emancipation of mankind. If and only if human civilization maintains itself with sufficient coherence to welcome her return and ignite the deceleration laser needed for her photonic sailing vessel to return, will mankind prove itself to be the equal of Hyades, and manumitted. Menelaus Montrose, if he is ever to see his wife again, must preserve civilization across all the abyss of time separating them. As the inventor of longterm suspended animation, of course he has a plan….
Douglas Cobb: What gave you some of the inspirations behind the series “Count to a Trillion,” John, and also behind the creation of Menelaus Montrose?
John C. Wright: The basic inspiration for the story came, oddly enough, from fans of my previous series, THE GOLDEN AGE. It seems there is a certain club or cult of folks, called Transhumanists, who take science fiction more seriously than I do, and they believe that the various marvels I predicted in that book, such as the ability to record human brain information, copy it, edit it, and download it into bodies much more durable than flesh and blood, are all to be discovered within the lifetime of men now living. In several conversations I tried to point out that the main problem was a moral one, not a technological one, although the technological problems themselves are insurmountable. (We do not even, for example, have a precise scientific definition of human thought, nor any way to reduce it to measurment).
As the conversation progressed the transhumanists (or at least those with whom I spoke) began making ever more astonishing and even absurd claims. An astonishing one was that any superior intelligence created by humans should not be educated according to any human moral standard, but allowed by trial and error to fall into any sort of moral philosophy it saw fit. This was based on an unspoken assumption that humans were so wicked that anything we tried to teach, even something as simple as the Golden Rule, would corrupt the pristine perfection of the Frankenstein’s Monster. An absurd claim was that entropy itself could someday be reversed. At this point I realized I was not dealing a scientific speculation, but cultic emotionalism.
Fairness requires I emphasize that not every man calling himself a Transhumanist buys into those last two ideas. For all I know, only the man who said it believes it, and, as time passes, maybe not even him. But it pointed out to me the easy way a man who idolizes intellect over moral sentiments, a man who prizes genius over saintliness, will easily be tempted to make an artificial intellect an idol, complete with human sacrifice.
It was the contemplation of the difficulties and drawbacks of discovering some method for superbeings and human beings to cooperate harmoniously which led to the central idea of COUNT TO A TRILLION, which is a meditation on the sheer scale and magnitude of the problems an interstellar polity would face, even if manned by immortal computer brains the size of Jupiter.
The second inspiration came from the majestic, if deeply flawed, works of Olaf Stabledon, particularly STAR MAKER. Mr Stabledon tells a story reaching from before the formation of the galaxies to the end of the universe with glimpses of what is beyond. But, for all his genius, he tells it wrongly, proposing that universes, like amoeba, are created by a blind and cruel demiurge, a godlike being who has no love for his creations, and who is engaged in experimentation for the sake of discovering ever higher states of evolution. Evolution, in that sense, means a blind and vicious process or trial and error where error means death. This is not the way civilizations progress, nor can civilizations be said to ‘evolve’ except by using a metaphor quite opposite its true meaning.
The third inspiration came from the Drake Equation Paradox, which asks, if life arises naturally, and civilization inevitably reaches toward the stars, where are all the aliens? Even we assume life is very rare, given the sheer number of stars in the sky, the galaxy should be overcrowded. My answer is one I frankly have not seen elsewhere in any other science fiction book.
The fourth inspiration came from the contemplation of the problem of Buck Rogers. If you recall, he was trapped in a mine cave in, and exposed to a radioactive gas which allowed him to sleep, as unaging as Rip van Winkle, until the Twenty Fifth Century. If you meant to pass your time in cryonic sleep, whom could you trust to watch the slumbering coffin? Would you wake up destitute, a beggar, hoping your children of the future would pay for your recuperation and education? Why would they?
Could you store gold or other valuables in the coffin? If so, how to avoid grave robbers?
No bank, no government, has a record of lasting more than a few decades, or a few centuries at most. The Roman Catholic Church, perhaps, could be trusted to guard sleeping bodies, sleeping on their gold, but not if mankind changed into something else, not once but many times, as centuries turned into millennia.
The graveyard guards themselves would have to be independent of any government, any institution, and live at a pace quicker than their charges (so as to fend off looters) but slower than the current world (so as to live long enough to guard the slumberers beyond the span of normal human lives). But they would have to be so vicious, that the legend of the vengeance of anyone who disturbed the slumbering dead would last a thousand years. And the legends would grow…
And so my next inspiration, oddly enough, come from those old movies about mummies, where rash British archeologists ignore the warnings of shivering native boys and dig up some ancient necromancer-king (who always seems to think the archeologist’s beautiful daughter is the reincarnation of his queen).
Douglas Cobb: How does the encounter with the alien technology change the life of Montrose — still referring to the first book of the series, itself called Count to a Trillion?
John C. Wright: Well, he does not encounter alien technology as much as an artifact containing a message. But the message reveals the science of how to construct artificial minds, and how to shape the six billion variables of predictive history into one fixed future the men living in it cannot escape. The message reveals at least part of the true size and magnitude of the collaboration ruling the Local Arm, and says who is busily building more stars in the nebula of Orion, but not why.
Douglas Cobb: Now, I’ll move on to a couple of questions about the second novel of the “Count to a Trillion” series, The Hermetic Millennia. Why did you choose that title for it? Did you have any others in mind as you were working on it, or was it called The Hermetic Millennia right from the beginning?
John C. Wright: The six remaining survivors of the Hermetic expedition, controlling technology and xypotechnology that the rest of Earth cannot comprehend or fight, each attempt to force mankind to evolve into a different vision of perfection. “Perfection” in their lights means a race that will be useful enough to the Hyades when its armada arrives to survive as slaves. Hence each millennia of the six or seven that pass during the span of the book reveals another secret, a Hermetic secret, so to speak.
Douglas Cobb: What is the mission of Menelaus Montrose’s bride, Rania, and would you please mention a few of the problems that Montrose must face and deal with in the second book of the series?
John C. Wright: As mentioned above, she must fly to M3 the Messier cluster of several hundred million stars northward of the spiral disk of the galaxy, confront the interstellar collection of self-aware Dyson spheres crowding the cloud of stars, and prove that mankind is worthy of being a Starfaring race. This means we must prove ourselves to be a race that thinks in the long term, one who is equally capable of caring about the fate of the generations ten thousand years hence as to care about the next.
The particular form of faster than light travel used in this book is light-sailing ships. The idea here is that you post an orbital interstellar strength laser at the port of departure and port of destination, leaving your engines there, which the ship is pushed at ever faster speeds halfway to the destination by a launching laser, and decelerated thereafter by a breaking laser. Any civilization relying on the target world to catch and slow the sailing vessels across the tens or hundreds of lightyears would have to a civilization proven to be reliable over centuries and millennia and tens and hundreds of millennia. How can mankind, fickle and willful mankind, prove itself so faithful?
And the only way this will be proved as if Menelaus Montrose never gives up on his love for her, never loses faith that she will return, and never stops his endless and ruthless quest to prepare the Earth for her return.
Douglas Cobb: Did you attend the 2005 Nebula Awards ceremony? If so, what was it like? Orphans of Chaos, like the Harry Potter books, deals — in part — with a mysterious school attended by a few very gifted students — in what ways is it different from the Harry Potter books? Please answer in 10 words or less — joking, of course….
John C. Wright: Yes. It was like a science fiction convention, except that I had the privilege of being insulted by Harlan Ellison. Orphans of Chaos is different from Harry Potter in that Harry is about a boy raised by muggles learning to be a supernatural wizard, and my book is about supernatural creatures learning to be humans.
Douglas Cobb: John, now I will move on to a few questions about The Judge of Ages. Who awakens Menelaus Montrose at the beginning of The Judge of Ages and why?
John C. Wright: The Blue Men of the Eighth Millennium, called Locusts, who are dwarfish and bald and superintelligent. They seem at first to be archeologists attempting to track down the legendary founder and first architect of the cryonic suspended animation tombs, whom the later generations called ‘The Judge of Ages.’
The legend is that he wakes from sleep like King Arthur or Babarossa periodically, and condemns to destruction any age which fails to keep alive the technology of space travel, or the basic laws and customs necessary for technology. Montrose is pulled out of his coffin, blinking and confounded, to act as a translator for the several other revenants from the several prior millennia.
The Blue Men say they are archeologists, but they keep the revenants they thaw trapped in a prison camp behind barbed wire, patrolled by dog things. And there is a growing air of desperation to their hunt.
Only slowly does it become clear that this Judge of Ages, the inventor of the cryonics process, for whom they Blue Men are seeking is him, standing unarmed in their midst.
Douglas Cobb: How many years after the second book, The Hermetic Millennia, does the action of The Judge of Ages takes place? What has happened to many of the tombs of the Knights?
John C. Wright: The Judge of Ages is the second half of The Hermetic Millennia, and takes place that same year and day and hour. I do not switch to the next period of the far future until the next book in the series, tentatively titled THE CONCUBINE VECTOR. The action there takes place between AD 11049 and AD 51555. I am currently at work on THE VINDICATION OF MAN, whose opening scene takes place in the year AD 71200.
I am not at liberty to say what has happened to the tombs of the slumbering Knights of Malta. (yes, my book proposes that the The Sovereign Military Hospitalier Order of St. John, of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, of Malta and of Colorado continues to remain in business in the future. It is still in business today, having been founded in the Middle Ages, so I see no reason to suppose that might not continue. )
Douglas Cobb: Without giving away too much that might be considered to be “spoilers,” John, is Rania still headed to meet with the bosses of the bosses of The Hyades Armada? After The Hyades Armada arrives on Earth, what is their plan for the fate of humans here?
John C. Wright: Their plans are to transport millions of men, along with flora and fauna of Earth, to twenty or so uninhabited planets circling stars within twenty lightyears of Sol in the 12 Millennium; and again to stars up to 40 lightyears away in the 25th Millennium, and again in the 37th and 53rd Millennium. The Hyades do not provide any victual or life support; it is up to the abducted millions to adapt or die, to alter the planet by terraforming it, or alter themselves by pantropy, or both.
Rania arrives at M3 in the 37th Millennium. She is not eaten by the shrieking eels at this time. The Princess lives. You were looking worried.
Douglas Cobb: Awesome answers so far, John! I just have a few more to go!
How did “Blackie” come to be called the Master of the World, and why has he been tampering with the evolutionary destiny of man?
John C. Wright: He is called the Master of the World because he used the Hermetic lore, the secrets of a science several million years in advance of mankind to conquer it. Not just the infinite energy resources found at the Diamond Star, and not just the sciences related to rendering biological processes reversible hence immortal, nor the sciences related to creating artificial intelligences with no practical upper limit on their intelligence, but a particular science which Isaac Asimov called Psychohistory, but Mike Flynn called Cliometry, the science of guiding history. Rania, at Ximen del Azarchel’s guidance, was able to read the Monument skillfully enough to apply the cliometric vectors to Earth and force (or cajole) the world into a state of world peace. He was able singlehandedly to usher in a golden age of prosperity and scientific wonder.
Douglas Cobb: What is “cliometric calculus,” and how does it figure into the plot of The Judge of Ages?
John C. Wright: I suppose I should read all the questions before answering any. Cliometry is the science of predicting hence of guiding history toward specific desired ends.
Douglas Cobb: Are you working on the next book of the “Count to a Trillion” series, if there will be one, or some other novel right now, John? If so, would you please tell our readers a little bit about whatever project you’re currently working on?
John C. Wright: The next three volumes in the series are tentatively titled THE CONCUBINE VECTOR, THE VINDICATION OF MAN, and the final volume will be COUNT TO THE ESCHATON. I am working on VINDINCATION right now, and VECTOR is sitting on the Editor’s desk. I am waiting to hear whether he will buy it or not.
The other projects I am working on, is a parallel-time travel fantasy called SOMEWHITHER, where the astrologers from a world where the Tower of Babel never fell and the giant Nephilim from a world where the Deluge of Noah never fell have combined against our world, one of the few where the Catholic Church never fell. I plan to be as historically accurate and theologically responsible as the movie VAN HELSING, which could very well serve as the inspiration for this work.
A book of my nonfiction essays, called TRANSHUMAN AND SUBHUMAN is being published this month by Castalia House, and they are soon to publish an anthology of my Night Land fantasies in a volume called AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND. After that, we have plans to publish an anthology of my short stories, some never seen before in print, called AEONS FAR AND NEAR. A nonfiction scholarly work called THE LAMENT OF PROMETHEUS is due sometime thereafter; it is a study of the symbolism in David Lindsay’s crippled masterpiece A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS. An anthology of my ‘Metachronopolis’ time travel tales, CITY BEYOND TIME is due thereafter.
Any admirer of my work, such as my mother, or my one fan, is due for a feast of my writing, thanks to Vox Day of Castalia Books.
Douglas Cobb: Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview with me, John!
For readers of The Guardian Liberty Voice who are into science fiction, I definitely recommend that you check out the novels of John C. Wright, and his wife, who is also a very talented author, L. Jagi Lamplighter! I highly recommend that you check out the books of John C. Wright today!
Written by: Douglas Cobb