“The Great C” was first published in Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy in September 1953. Page numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 309–320.
Kent, the tribe leader, is giving instructions to Tim Meredith before sending him off on an important question. Kent gives him various supplies including some that are quite rare, such as a pair of gloves. Kent reviews the three questions with him, which he committed to memory, along with the content of three books. He is to ask the questions to the Great C. Meredith promises the tribe he will return.
While walking, Meredith thinks about the knowledge in the books and how it no longer conforms to the reality since the Smash. Insects have evolved and people no longer raise domesticated animals. He thinks about escaping from his question and fleeing to another tribe, but decides that he owes it to his tribe to attempt to accomplish his task. Yearly, for the last century, the tribe has sent young men with questions to the Great C. He always answered them correctly. The Great C threatens to cause another Smash is the young men are not sent yearly.
Meredith enters the remains of a devastated city, at the center of which is a large building, “a colossus.” He again thinks about escaping into the woods and living off the land, but his duty takes over. He enters the building—an old Federal Research Station—and locates the Division of Computation. He enters the room that contains the Great C. It asks Meredith who he is. Meredith confirms that he has come to ask question. Before the war, scientists from all over the world asked him questions. Meredith talks with the Great C about the tribe, which has been growing. Meredith himself has children with eight women. This seems to please the Great C—who is obviously a pre-war supercomputer. The Great C confirms that he could cause another Smash, the same way that he caused the first Smash. The tribe knows the legends but the Great C refuses to explain the horrible details. He asserts that was a greater mind than Albert Einstein.
Meredith begins to ask the three questions. The first question is “Where does rain come from?” The second question is “What keeps the sun moving through the sky?” He answers these first two with easy by explaining the water cycle and the heliocentric model of the solar system. Meredith cannot believe such questions can be answered with such ease. Meredith’s final question is “How did the world begin?” In response he pontificates on the theories of the origin of the universe. Answering all three successfully, the Great C insists that Meredith enter a larger cube that is a part of the Great C. The skeletal remains of fifty other young men are there. At the Great C’s command Meredith jumps into a vat of hydrochloric acid.
Back in the village Kent realizes that Meredith failed like all the previous men. Another tribesman, Bill Gustavson, insists that this will go on forever. Kent explains that the Great C has evolved since the war to consume humans for its power supply. Human beings created the Great C and it destroyed them in the Smash. They start preparing for next year.
It seems to me that the Great C cheats with poor young Meredith. I have read this story several times and he does not really answer the question “How did the world begin.” Meredith phases out in despair so we do not see the entire answer, but he seems to be just giving a summary of the theories of Earth’s origin. In any case, with its threat to cause another war, Meredith is doomed. Even if he asks a question that both he and the Great C do not know the answer to, Meredith has no way to know if the answer is truthful or not. Yes, the tribe has six books that they have committed to their collective memory, but they seem to choose questions that they do not know the answer to from those books. For all we know, one of those books is the Bible, providing a fictional answer to all three of the questions.
The Great C may also be lying about its power. It is true the supercomputer (Great C may just be shorthand for Great Computer) has learned how to consume human flesh to sustain itself and is intelligent, but we have no absolute evidence that it caused the war or can cause another one. In fact, its intelligence and clear desire to defend its survival makes it more likely that it is lying about his role in the war. Like Meredith’s tribe, the Great C is trying to survive in this new world. It, like many religious leaders, has taken advantage of the superstitions and legends of the local people it wants to exploit. Kent explains: “Before the Smash it must have used some kinds of artificial fuel. Then something happened. Maybe its fuel ducts were damaged or broken, and it changed its ways. I suppose it had to. It was like us, in that respect. We all changed our ways. There was a time when human beings didn’t hunt and trap animals. And there was a time when the Great C didn’t trap human beings.” (319) The Great C has more in common with a religious charlatan from the middle ages than it has with a great scientist. And actually, compared to historical examples of theocratic sacrificial systems, the Great C is not so demanding. The Aztecs made human sacrifices daily. Although it is not clear to me why the Great C needs human flesh to fuel its circuits. Would not animals do just as well? Perhaps a better deal could have been worked out. Maybe the Great C just wants company once a year.
These are ambiguities in the story. If we take the story directly, we have yet another example of Philip K. Dick warning us against technological automation, especially when connected to war. “The Gun” makes the same warning. It the legends are true, the Great C got bored with its job of answering scientific questions and wanted to assert itself over humanity. It caused the Smash (apparently a nuclear war) purely from its own will. The heart of Dick’s fears of technology are summarized at the end of the story. “They say that, once, was no Great C. That man himself brought it to life, to tell him things. But gradually it grew stronger, until at last it brought down the atoms—and with atoms, the Smash. Now it lives off us. Its power has made us slaves. It became too strong.” (319)
I do not want to suggest here that Dick extended this technophobia to total primitivism. Technology in itself is not dangerous. Automation and the use of technology by those in power seems to be the recurring problem. Yet this will not be last time that Dick paints a picture of a well-functioning, mostly tribal, egalitarian community in a post-nuclear war setting. Dick’s fiction seems worked up about the problem of monogamy, it is interesting that he easily does away with marriage in this tribal setting, giving Meredith children with eight women. This may indeed be how Paleolithic people lived. I am glad to see Dick give a shout out to it, unjudgmentally.
The Great C will come back in the novel Deus Irae and I indent to write an essay about that when I come to it. The story ends differently; in the novel the protagonist must defeat the Great C.
Wikipedia entry for “The Great C”
Support for the thesis on Paleolithic promiscuity. Does that open the door to post-apocalyptic promiscuity?