"Q" by John Grant: An Appreciation by Martin Lewis
There is more than enough hatred for the George W. Bush administration to go round and John Grant's "Q" is not the only story to fuel itself on this anger. It might well be the best though. Although its rage is ungloved and there is no doubt about the real world targets that Grant is aiming at, there is enough ambiguity to the story to carry even the sceptical reader over the hurdle. Considering he paints the Department of Homeland Security as the Stazi this is no mean feat.
Immediately prior to the opening of the story the President of the United States of America has been assassinated. Bush is never mentioned by name, but it is clear who the president who "seemed to be heading confidently toward a fourth term of office thanks to the increasingly obvious manipulation of computer-recorded votes" is based on. In keeping with the general tone of the story he is murdered his own Vice President, although the blame is levelled at--who else?--al-Qaeda.
Dr. Cello Prestranta is the new Deputy Director of Operations for the CIA. The post became vacant when the previous DDO, Prestranta's sometime lover, was killed by same bomb as the President. His posthumous briefing to her tells her to go to visit Dr. Tim Heatherton at the Center for Neuronic Research before doing anything else.
The Center is a secure and secret CIA installation so the story takes place in a bubble of free speech in what is otherwise a police state. This is just as well because these characters don't see eye to eye with the Administration. As Heatherton puts it: "Strange times when we've come to regard the CIA as the torchbearers of liberty." Grant has clearly had an eye on the CIA's ongoing battle with the Bush Administration to try and place empiricism above ideology.
Heatherton has been researching dreams and subconscious thoughts, originally as an interrogation tool but with increasingly esoteric results. Until about half way through this still seems to be a near future SF story where the experiments will have some bearing on the political situation, but then it unexpectedly moves off in a remorselessly bleak cosmological direction. Heatherton's dream machine has uncovered deep subconscious thoughts that are common to all people and reveal humanity's origins.
Reading the story I was reminded of Terry Bison's "Dear Abbey," a pessimistic novella that suggested all human endeavour was futile. "Q" multiplies this pessimism: in Bisson's novella humanity is "a single bright idea in a dead universe," here the universe is teeming with life, however all the myriad intelligent species are isolated from each other. In fact the universe itself acts to stop them from coming into contact with each other, it is not merely implacable but hostile:
Every time the human species has looked as if it might break its current bounds, might not just approach the limit but possibly, just possibly, be able to peer beyond it, there's been a Hell-bringer waiting ready to bring an iron-soled boot stamping down to crush the groping fingers of the venture . . . . For all of the universe's countless species, there will always be that stamping boot.
Hell-bringers like Bush are an inevitability; they are the universe's jailers, necessary to enforce a strict regime of solitary confinement. The reason for this is that life is not native to the universe but was brought here by Q, a God-like being who is explicitly not God and who is unable to integrate its creations. (It is a little unfortunate that Q itself cannot help but conjure up images of the irritating Loki-figure from "Star Trek," but what can you do?) It's a great piece of radical philosophical cosmology of the type Greg Egan likes to spring on his readers.
Perstranta decides this knowledge is too dangerous and must be violently suppressed for the greater good. Again this sort of consequentialism ties in with the current political climate. Increasingly we are being told that the end justifies the means and that there are classes of knowledge that by their nature are more important than people's basic rights. Obviously this is by no means a new development, but we do live in a time where such things are increasingly common and even extreme thought experiments, along the lines of "would you torture a terrorist to stop a nuclear bomb going off?" are part of the general discourse.
As befits a story about free speech and ideas it is very dialogue heavy. The majority is a sustained conversation between Prestranta and Heatherton and since Heatherton is explicitly cast in the role of teacher it can be a little like a Socratic dialogue. Cutting against this is the filter of Prestranta's viewpoint, the subtle reminders that she has her own agenda. Likewise the intrusion of sexual desire for Heatherton breaks up the lecture-like feeling this sort of exposition heavy story can engender.
It is possible to see the story as a pointless exercise in nihilism but its success lies in its execution. It is an elegant cry of despair that saves one final dagger for its closing sentence.
Link to story.