Following is an excerpt from my novel Quibble, a far-future sci-fi dystopia that examines the ever-narrowing gap between human beings and our technology. Taking its clearest inspiration from the anthropologically observant science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, the novel depicts a post-Singularity, transhuman civilization in which distinctions between “real” and “virtual” are deeply effaced. Presently, I'm seeking literary representation and publication for this novel.
Chapter 1 Birth @Quibble
Very few are the Ones who remember their birth. Almost all are born dreaming, and their memory cannot reach back to such a thing. I was born in the dark of the night Within, wakeful, with no iso to numb my senses, no Zero to dazzle me with a glass. My mind has let go of nothing.
When I am old, so I’ve heard, the memory of my cycles will become an ocean, vast and amorphous. I won’t know what occurred when. Did this happen before that or later? Is it happening still, or is it in the past? The oldest Ones – those past four hundred Fears – never speak of the past, of any then. They don’t even conjugate verbs in past or future tenses. For them, all is now: everything happens all at once, all the time.
I’m young yet; my story is still a river, flowing. So, my birth: the warm, liquid Within spat me out, heaved me headlong and crying into the sting of cold air, which I already knew was also Within. The first thing I encountered, besides that coldness, was Quandary’s hands around me. After the womb’s tranquility, his hands felt rough, and I believe this was why I cried – not because I was now in an alien place, which after all was not so alien, for it was just as dark as before.
Quandary fumbled with me a while before placing me in Quiddity’s arms. They spoke to One another, but I don’t recall what they said, for these were the first words of any One I heard clearly, not muffled by Quiddity’s body, and I was too shocked by that clarity to remember them. Then Quiddity held me close, murmuring a single word in my ear, again and again: “Quibble.”
You, who are Numberless and ignorant of the world into which I was born, may wonder at our custom of naming. It is quaint and curious, even I think so. One’s name is a common noun, though not a commonplace noun. Frequently it denotes part of a book or some other literary ephemera. For instance, a young One whom I would come to regard as an uncle of sorts bore the name Colophon – a pictograph which usually appears on a title page, though no One knows what it means.
What is especially strange about this is that no One has ever held a book, I mean a real book. When I became Dazed, taking up a book in my hands was surreal beyond belief. Not that Ones are illiterate. Quite the contrary: we learn our letters and the rules of spelling, and we even read simple texts, while still in the womb. Unity has it so.
Some Ones have odd, abstract names which allude to rhetoric or philosophy. Quiddity: essence, intrinsic truth. Quandary: a puzzle. They told me, much later when I began to be interested in such things, that the kinship yet contrast between their names was what originally intrigued them about One another. They owed their faithfulness, as Ones call a pair-bonding, to their names. When as it happened I was born in the dark, between cycles dreaming, they got the opportunity – rare for Ones – to name their child themselves. They would have preferred to call me Query, in keeping with their own names, but there was already a Query in our consensus, and Unity forbade that I take his name lest confusion ensue.
So my name is Quibble. A trifling objection, or an evasion, a half-truth. I don’t like it, never have. Among Dazed, who shorten their names in a custom they call abbreviation, I’m known as Quill, which is much better. After all, Dazed have real books and write in them with real quills, and I am a scrivener.
As I lay still slick with amniotic fluid in Quiddity’s arms, listening to her repeat my name, Quandary drew away from us and said it loudly, announcing it to all Ones. Those in our chamber answered in unison: “Quibble!” My name echoed off the walls, then echoed again, restrengthened, farther away. The latter was not an echo of the first echo. Rather, it was the singular voice of the Ones in the two adjoining chambers. Their voices echoed more faintly, followed by a new chorus of even more distant Ones, their yet fainter echo. As the word faded into distance, still passing from chamber to chamber and still resounding, Quandary again lifted his voice and the Ones there with us again mimicked: “Quibble!” His call went out five times in all.
Thus, as I came into the Ones’ world, the world Within, consensus was created around me. You must understand that Ones live in consensus, by it, through it. There is only life Within, with One’s consensus. To be without the consensus is to be utterly Without, which is annihilation. You who are Numberless may know better, but so Ones believe.
As I heard the Ones chant my name, I cried louder. I bawled. It was not that the Ones were so foreign to me, though they were, but that there were so many of them. Hundreds, surely, in this chamber alone, and thousands upon thousands altogether. This was not new in concept – Unity also teaches Ones to count before birth – but as the scrivener says, “Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.” For a long time I had known only Quiddity, the encompassing One who was my Within. Now I had emerged into a much greater Within where I met others, making Two and with me Three. Then only moments later, not yet accustomed to the reality of Three, I met Thousands. It was a lot for a newborn to take in.
And all – I, the Two near me, the Thousands farther away – all were One. So Unity had declared to me with my first thought, whenever that was: “All are One. We are a consensus.” Unity gave me this thought many times, calling it the First Confession and insisting I repeat it, until I volunteered the confession without being prompted and understood it to be the governing maxim of my life. But now that I was in consensus – no longer part of One from whom I had really felt no distinction, but myself One among untold Thousands also One with me – how could the First Confession be true?
At this inkling of paradox, this first hint of heresy, I hushed. I listened. Unity said nothing. “Is something wrong with her?” Quandary asked. I recognized – for I’d just had my first brush with the same emotion – fear in his question.
“No, nothing at all,” Quiddity answered. “She lives. She’s just grown quiet.”
I couldn’t tell them why I quieted, of course, for a newborn One may indeed comprehend everything said to her but can’t speak herself. My bafflement and fear had now passed, and there was no other reason to wail as I’d been doing, so I kept my peace. The chamber did not remain silent, though. Now that my welcoming ceremony was over, Ones near and far began to talk.
“Surpassing strange for One so new not to cry and cry,” said One nearby.
A new tone had come into Quandary’s voice, akin to fear but different, maybe fear of another kind. Colophon made no reply.
“Not strange,” Quiddity said, the same tone in her voice. “Precocious. And there’s nothing wrong with that.” Her voice turned affectionate as she spoke to me: “Do you hear, Quibble? There’s nothing wrong with being a bit precocious.”
“Don’t tell her that,” Quandary chided.
“You’ll get her sent Without!” Colophon said.
“I was born wakeful,” Quiddity told them, “and I was just the same! It never got me sent Without.”
“One shouldn’t try her luck,” a woman’s voice said in the darkness, somewhat farther from Quiddity and me than Colophon was. The voice went on, drawing closer: “Precocity is only a flattering word for willfulness—” I was grateful to the voice’s owner; I hadn’t known what precocious meant. “—and you know what Unity thinks of a willful One. She will endure hardships. There must be control.”
My mother clutched me tighter and tighter still as the voice approached. When it fell silent, now as close to us as Quandary was, Quiddity said with a trace of obstinacy: “Have you come for her already? She’s only just been born!”
“If you’d undergone this Passage dreaming as is customary,” the woman replied, “you wouldn’t have met her at all, not for a long time yet, perhaps never. I’ve indulged both of you. Don’t test the limits of my indulgence.”
Now, Numberless, try to imagine my surprise when Quiddity pressed her lips to my forehead, saying only, “Be brave, Quibble,” and returned me to Quandary, and then my shock and fright when he passed me into the arms of the stranger. Imagine how I howled in protest, realizing no One else would! Imagine, if you can, being carried away from your mother before you could even once suckle at her breast.
I’m sure you cannot possibly imagine the brilliance of blue light which appeared before my eyes then – my first dream Within. Or, despite how suddenly deprived I felt of my parents, how that light soothed me. Nor can you imagine the voices of Ones – “Zero,” they said, “Zero” – falling away on all sides, their consensus retreating, abandoning me, even as she who carried me all at once dissipated, becoming a mere ghost of touch, there and yet not there.
You can’t imagine these things, but I can. My mind has let go of nothing.
An excerpt from the novel Quibble, copyright 2020 by Joshua Lavender.