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Count to a Trillion (2011)
John C. Wright

A team of the world's top mathematicians is sent to examine an alien artifact which seems to have a tremendous amount of knowledge "written" on it. (I've put "written" in quotes because not only is the information encoded in what is presumably alien mathematical symbols, it seems that it may even be contained in the fractal structure of the object itself.) Since he speculates that it may even be beyond the understanding of the brilliant human minds that are being sent to study it, our hero uses an experimental treatment to enhance his own brain with the hope that he will be able to comprehend it. The story really begins when he wakes up from suspended animation, two hundred years later, with no memory of precisely what happened, but in a world that has changed quite a bit in the intervening period. His fellow mathematicians from the expedition now rule the Earth, and then there is the beautiful princess that he finds strangely familiar.

There are a number of interesting things about this "space opera". It takes place in a future where the two "superpowers" are Latin America and India following a global religious war. Texas, the home of the protagonist, is a backwards part of a third-world nation. There is an extremely cool section about mining an anti-matter star. (Is that original to this book or did Wright get it from somewhere?). And, of course, there are lots of mathematical terms thrown around. As far as I can tell, it does not actually matter if you know what the words mean, since it does not make much sense in any case...but it sure sounds cool. For instance, after he first takes the brain enhancing drug, the protagonist realizes the limits of human language and creates a more efficient language based on complex analysis and the Riemann Zeta function (though the rest of the crew, for some reason, doesn't seem to understand him when he tries to communicate with them using it). Somehow the character uses Diophantine equations (like the famous Fermat's Last Theorem problem) to figure out how a baby appeared on board the ship despite the fact that the entire crew was male.

As we meet the crew members on the original mission, we learn a bit about their mathematical interests. One, for example, is described as being an expert in the topology of algebraic surfaces, and the narrator comments that this is likely to be useful since the alien artifact seems to be making use of knot theory. Strangely, two of the crew members are described using the phrase "His work was on the Poincaré Conjecture". This is doubly strange because this same phrase was used on pages 36 and 37 (is it an editing error?) and also because the Poincaré Conjecture is now settled and so I do not see what work there would be for someone in it in the future. (Basically, Poincaré hypothesized that there would not be any geometric objects with certain topological properties other than the n-dimensional equivalent of a sphere. It turns out that he was right, as was proved by Perelman who completed Hamilton's idea for proving it true. So, what else is there to say?)

A few other mathematical remarks:

  • I'm wondering whether it is a sign of sexism that the entire crew of the ship (including all of the famous mathematicians) was male. Of course, it is key to the plot, but it still seems odd. Moreover, if it is sexist, the question is whether it is the author's sexism (in the great sexist tradition of classic science fiction!) or whether he is just demonstrating that in a world whose superpowers are largely Hindu and Catholic, there would be no equality for women.
  • The protagonist is first shown to be a brilliant mathematician when he was able to quickly figure out how to compute the sum of a large number of sequential digits when his teacher had assigned this project to his school class as a way to waste the students' time. Of course, this is a famous story often told about young Gauss. (See, for example, this Wikipedia entry.) To be honest, I have a little trouble imagining this being as impressive a feat in a time when the students have computers in the form of "virtual paper" that they can program.
  • In the discussion of Fermat's Last Theorem, he says "no solutions for n less than or equal to three"...presumably he meant "greater than"?

This is an intriguing and well written science fiction novel, and for those who are interested in math as well as aliens, the fact that mathematical terms are tossed around throughout (albeit nonsensically) just makes it better.

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Works Similar to Count to a Trillion
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Artifact by Gregory Benford
  2. Gallactic Alliance - Translight! by Doug Farren
  3. Sphere by Michael Crichton
  4. Gödel Numbers by J.W. Swanson
  5. Star, Bright by Mark Clifton
  6. The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree by Michael Swanwick
  7. The Simplest Equation by Nicky Drayden
  8. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  9. The Curve of the Snowflake by William Grey Walter
  10. Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer by Ken Liu
Ratings for Count to a Trillion:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3.5/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.5/5 (2 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifGenius, Aliens, Romance,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)