REVIEW: Q – Christina Dalcher

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Author: Christina Dalcher (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: HQ

Genre: Dystopic fiction, feminist fiction

See Also: Vox

In the US, this book is titled Masterclass.

Elena Fairchild is a teacher at one of the state’s new elite schools. Her daughters are exactly like her: beautiful, ambitious, and perfect. A good thing, since the recent mandate that’s swept the country is all about perfection.

Now everyone must undergo routine tests for their quotient, Q, and any children who don’t measure up are placed into new government schools. Instead, teachers can focus on the gifted.

Elena tells herself it’s not about eugenics, not really, but when one of her daughters scores lower than expected and is taken away, she intentionally fails her own test to go with her.

But what Elena discovers is far more terrifying than she ever imagined…

After reading Vox, I was interested in seeing how this book played out, but I knew it was going to be very tricky. I found Vox, particularly to begin with, very intense. It hit a lot of nerves for me and I felt furious reading it – at points wondering whether I would even finish it. I expected a similar thing from Q, but worse. Vox is a dystopia looking at the oppression of women; Q deals with eugenics.

So, trigger warnings a-plenty here. Ableism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and details of some of the horrific things done in the name of eugenics and racial purity. Lots of throwbacks to WWII, naturally, but never forgetting that the Nazi party didn’t operate in a global background, and there were eugenicists around the world who worked with them.

The structure is very similar to Vox, and I think Dalcher’s strength, or preferred mode of working perhaps, is in placing the reader in the setting of the ‘everywoman’. A middle-class mother, early 40s, who is just trying to get by in the world as it is. Dalcher merely takes something which is currently rumbling below the surface in society and extrapolates it further, into its most extreme version, and demonstrates how easily things can change. The same is true here, but there are differences. The current system of tiered schools for children has been in place a lot longer, Q scores have been around for a while, and the protagonist’s husband was integral in their introduction, and in running the department which oversees them in children.

The Q is the score which dictate’s a person’s value. It’s based on academic attainment, the status of their parents, their race, sexuality, behaviour… It all contributes. Be late for work, lose Q points. Call in sick, lose Q points. It’s not clear how you gain Q points, but if you lose points, so do members of your family,  because they’re related to you. Tainted by association. Children and teachers are tested monthly to see whether they still reach the levels required for the elite silver schools, whether they’ll be demoted to the average green schools, or whether they’ll be sent to the yellow state residential schools and never seen again. The school you go to dictates the professions you are eligible for, and the tests begin from kindergarten. Q says which queues you can stand in when shopping, where you can eat, what their life holds.

I was surprised that this didn’t make me as angry as Vox to begin with. I think part of that might have been that I was expecting it this time – I went into Vox essentially blind – and part of it was that… nothing in this book was really made up. All of the horrors and social arrangements, these have been done before in history. Perhaps it might be shocking if you were ignorant of the atrocities which have happened before. Perhaps it might also be shocking if you hadn’t looked at society today and gone “is this what people in 1930s Europe felt like, as the world went mad around them?” As I’m at the stage of asking that question approximately once a fortnight, particularly when I look at the politics around the world, this book seemed less of a shocking warning and more of a bleak prediction.

Perhaps the only bit I struggled with was the way abortion was handled. Yes, the reality is that basically all birth control exists because of Nazi supporters and eugenicists. Marie Stopes was pretty awful, and so was Margaret Sanger (Sanger is even briefly mentioned in the book), there’s no denying that they had ulterior motives behind their work. Q looks at abortion from a largely eugenics perspective – pregnant women have their babies tested for Q ratings, so they know whether it’s worth continuing with the pregnancy. If the Q score is too low, they’re encouraged to terminate. It’s hard to know what elements impact a Q of a foetus, but things like the mother’s age are taken into account – if a mother is over 30, the lower the Q score is likely to be, so they’re encouraged to end the pregnancy. The reality is that yes, this is currently happening to some extent around the world today. Gender-based abortion is a real issue in many cultures, and many campaigners believe that testing for disabilities before birth, such as Downs Syndrome, is innately eugenicist. BUT there is also no denying that women have a right to be in control of their own fertility and their own bodies. Given the current volatile situation when it comes to abortion rights in the US (where the book is set), I felt a little uncomfortable in a book which almost exclusively looked at this element in terms of racial purity. One abortion for ‘normal’ reasons is mentioned, but it’s almost in passing. Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a big problem had the book not clearly been trying to put across a message, a warning. It’s a nuance which troubled me.

The strength of this, though, is in the way it shows how some turns of phrase or thought can worm their way into your consciousness without you even realising. The idea of being “fit” to have children, or that smart people should receive a reward for working harder, or that some people are only suited to a certain type of work – it’s all the casual rhetoric that can be found in almost any society. Add to that the casual cruelty of children, but taken further and embedded into every day life. There’s also an element of the American Dream narrative in there: if you work hard and you’re smart, you can succeed and do well in society. With the proviso that is currently unspoken, that you can do this if you’re the right sort of person, the right race, the right upbringing.

Perhaps the most spine-chilling part, for me, is where it can all be traced back to. The smug intellectual superiority of a very bitter person, the kind of person you find trolling on reddit or running abhorrent twitter accounts. The Infowars people, the Breitbart people. Those people exist, now, and social media companies aren’t taking them seriously, goverments are only just starting to.

This book didn’t upset me because I’m already upset. Because I’ve already looked at society today and seen the parallels. Perhaps, though, it will make more people look at it. The US title is a nice play on this, Masterclass being very close to “master race”.

I hope people listen.

Briefly:

  • A harrowing book which uses the structure of a normal family in a slightly future society to demonstrate how social and racial politics can insidiously become something much darker over time.
  • If you read Vox, this may seem structurally very similar. In some ways that means you can focus more fully on the differences and the plot, than trying to pick up a complex world building thread.
  • I find it interesting that both of Dalcher’s heroines I’ve met so far have been tied to Europe in some way. In Vox the narrator was Italian, in Q Elena is a first generation German American – her parents came over when they were young, and she was born there. There’s a reason for Germany, of course.

Rating: 4/5 – I wonder how effective it will be, whether people will wave it off as exaggeration, or become offended at the insinuations. There were parts I would have liked more nuance in, but it’s a strong book, just not for the faint-hearted.

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