Reviews of “Scanners Live in Vain” (1950) and related work

“Scanners Live in Vain” (1950Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer).

This is Smith’s debut in SF, and his best work. It’s older than the New Wave but fully immersive in a truly weird society, forcing the reader to picture scenes that are outlined mainly in their effects. There is almost a normal amount of exposition, but it tends to arrive after the fact. This makes for an unusual application of “show, don’t tell”, as well as a strong display of late modernism.

The story itself is a dizzying metaphor with many levels, neatly aligned with the manner of its presentation. There’s contemporary cybernetics applied to humanity, Cartesian mind-body separation played up to the level of self-alienation but orthogogonal to alien hand syndrome, the dark knights of the atomic age and the Cold War sacrificing themselves to protect the “sleeping” innocent (here passengers), paranoia, slavery, etc.

This is all wrapped further in the idea of nature itself as hostile. The cities are walled to ward off various murderous mimics, again sublimating Cold War fears of communist spies, despite Linebarger’s familiarity with Chinese culture and the sympathetic character of Chang. The Instrumentality, which would recur through most of Smith’s SF, runs a police state of sorts in this relatively early era. At the utmost extreme, space is dangerous, not simply by way of then-still-hypothetical Van Allen belts or interstellar radiation or even the maddening loneliness of Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future (1930), but somehow antithetical to life. The bleakness of this big picture makes Martel’s journey all the more touching; by a series of coincidences he becomes the underdog champion not only of human sentimentality but of science and social progress as well. Beautifully done.

References here: Aniara (1956), Fight Club (1999), The Wicked and the Damned (2019).

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“The Game of Rat and Dragon” (1955Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer), Genevieve Linebarger (writer).

Read in 2021.

After the age of scanners and the new age of sail as depicted in “The Lady Who Sailed The Soul (1960), the invention of planoforming makes space travel many times faster but dangerous in yet another way, creating the need for pinlighters to accompany planoforming psychic captains.

A campy, comedic narrative of psychic combat and more hostile space. It is telling that Smith keeps up his usual coy schtick until he has defined what the partners actually are, and from that point on, he stops calling them partners because the premise is only a joke about his own house cats, not good SF.

References here: “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962), Outlaw Star (1998).

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“The Burning of the Brain” (1958Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer).

Read in 2021.

A planoforming captain is sent out with the wrong star charts and must resort to desperate measures.

Pleasantly baroque soft SF.

References here: Dune (1965).

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“Golden the Ship Was – Oh! Oh! Oh!” (1959Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer), Genevieve Linebarger (writer).

Read in 2021.

The lords of the Instrumentality pull together, admit they’ve all been bribed, and resort to top-secret ploys to save Manhome Earth from an upstart.

References here: “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal” (1964).

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“The Lady Who Sailed The Soul” (1960Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer).

Read in 2021.

A young woman traumatized by a feminist falls in love with an astronaut who has been aged by staying awake on a 40-year journey to pilot a ship with a solar sail. A pilot is needed because, thousands of years in the future, “There is no all-purpose computer built that weighs as little as a hundred and fifty pounds”. The woman takes a similar trip to end up the same mental and physical age as the man.

This is set in the same period of the Instrumentality as “Scanners”. It, too, deals with the hazards of space travel combined with creepy, intrusive biological modifications, but it’s a love story. It’s clear that “Smith” did not like feminism; he characterizes the protagonist’s mother as “the kind of woman who is a feminist because she is not very feminine”. It’s also clear that although the press is continually hounding the protagonist, Helen America, to make her life a spectacle like her mother’s, Smith himself still considers the love story so beautiful that he alludes to it in other stories as being one of the greatest in human history, as though its beauty and not the press made it famous. Curiously, the premise has no relationship at all with relativity; instead the lovers age at different mental and physical rates because of their medical adaptations, which slows down their thinking to prevent them from going permanently insane. This is likely one of Smith’s many allusions to his own experience with arduous medical treatments.

References here: “The Game of Rat and Dragon” (1955).

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“Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons” (1961Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer).

Read in 2021.

A thief attempts a heist on Old North Australia (Norstrilia). It is the wealthiest planet in the known universe because it is the source of stroon, also known as the santaclara drug, which is grown on sheep and extends life.

Gentleman thief narratives like the Lupin franchise are usually pretty dumb, and this is no exception. Among other bad ideas in here, the protagonist’s entire planet of master thieves is fooled by a fake page inserted into one physical encyclopedia for a general audience. It turns out, surreally, that the stroon farms are well protected by psychic projections from congenitally insane minks. I prefer sand worms.

References here: Dune (1965).

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“Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” (1961Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer).

Read in 2021.

The “Rediscovery of Man” is a purposeful reduction of the human control of human life. In it, two lovers are imperfectly retrained to express the ancient French culture of the author’s own time. Uncertain as to whether they ought to be together anymore, they embark on a quest along a tributary boulevard to an oracle high up in the wall of a space elevator.

A rare, and remarkably successful, short treatment of the dismantling of a dystopia. Appropriately, it is dreamlike, inspired by a painting named in the story, and not without nuance.

References here: “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962).

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‣‣ “Under Old Earth” (1966Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer).

Read in 2021.

Ending his life, Lord Sto Odin of the Instrumentality descends to investigate a possible musical insurrection, carried by two robotic Roman legionaries. All the while, he is bothered by happiness.

Dreary useless centuries of happiness, in which all the unhappy were corrected or adjusted or killed. Unbearable desolate happiness without the sting of grief, the wine of rage, the hot fumes of fear. How many of us have ever tasted the acid, icy taste of old resentment? That’s what people really lived for in the Ancient Days, when they pretended to be happy and were actually alive with grief, rage, fury, hate, malice and hope! Those people bred like mad. They populated the stars while they dreamed of killing each other, secretly or openly. Their plays concerned murder or betrayal or illegal love. Now we have no murder. We cannot imagine any kind of love which is illegal. Can you imagine the Murkins with their highway net? Who can fly anywhere today without seeing that net of enormous highways? Those roads are ruined, but they’re still here. You can see the abominable things quite clearly from the moon. Don’t think about the roads. Think of the millions of vehicles that ran on those roads, the people filled with greed and rage and hate, rushing past each other with their engines on fire. They say that fifty thousand a year were killed on the roads alone. We would call that a war. What people they must have been, to rush day and night and to build things which would help other people to rush even more! They were different from us. They must have been wild, dirty, free. Lusting for life, perhaps, in a way that we do not. We can easily go a thousand times faster than they ever went, but who, nowadays, bothers to go? Why go?

A muddled mysticism runs through this, the last of Smith’s stories, published in the year of his own death. He aims for mythopoeic potential. He misses, but there is an echo of H. P. Lovecraft in the undefined threat of the densely clustered “Douglas-Ouyang planets” mentioned only here. The implication seems to be that a happy life without the primal “wine of rage” exposes people to some hostile alien force like the dragons, but what it is, we’ll never know.

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“A Planet Named Shayol” (1961Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer).

Read in 2021.

A prison planet where local organisms—“dromozoa”—keep prisoners alive so effectively that they even grow spare parts for other humans. These are harvested by the friendly giant warden, who injects the prisoners with the most potent narcotic.

Though it is unconvincing, with a strong cartoonish streak, there is also a raw sfnal quality to this surreal vision of a useful, pleasant hell, and the ending is good too.

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‣‣ “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal” (1964Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer).

Read in 2021.

A spaceship captain with a lot of common sense is still tricked by people descended from the human settlers of Arachosia, a place where, for natural reasons, female genetic expression is fatally carcinogenic, so that the settlers universally converted to the male sex and also became evil.

Campy space-based horror. By this point in the development of his SF setting, whether intradiegetically or extradiegetically, Smith had arrived at the following chief characteristic of the human government:

It is the pride of the Instrumentality that the Instrumentality allows its officers to commit crimes or mistakes or suicide. The Instrumentality does the things for mankind that a computer can not do. The Instrumentality leaves the human brain, the human choice in action.

Aside from a vague resemblance to Christian theology, that’s rather nice. Suzdal plays a small part in the 1961 story. For his crime in this story, abusing a power like that in “Golden the Ship Was – Oh! Oh! Oh!” (1959), he is sent to Shayol.

References here: “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” (1964), “The Terratin Incident” (1973), “Phantasms” (1993).

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“The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer).

Read in 2021.

In the era of the Rediscovery of Man, Lord Jestocost contacts a bird-based psychic superman through a catgirl, to aid the cause of the underpeople by evading a hypertechnological panopticon.

Relatively conventional work by Smith’s standards, and it does not build up to a point. Given its origin in the prequel, the “Jestocost” name has to indicate Jesus Christ, even though the word is Russian for “cruelty”, as Smith surely knew. The name C’mell, like some of the names in “The Game of Rat and Dragon” (1955), refers to one of Smith’s own cats, imagined here as a heavily sexualized girl who’d already had a nonsensical bit part in “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” (1961).

References here: “Assignment: Earth” (1968).

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‣‣ “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” (1964Text)

Cordwainer Smith (writer).

Read in 2021.

Due to an administrative error, an intuitive doctor is born, trained and assigned to a world where she is not needed. This turns out to be the trigger for a predestined reintroduction of Christianity, as a religion preaching universal love between ordinary humans and the slaves they have made out of non-human animals like D’joan, a dog (D) named Joan, who corresponds loosely to Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc).

Their meeting occurred at a place nicknamed ‘the edge of the world,’ where the undercity met daylight. This was itself unusual, but Fomalhaut III was an unusual and uncomfortable planet, where wild weather and men’s caprice drove architects to furious design and grotesque execution. Elaine walked through the city, secretly mad, looking for sick people whome she could help. She had been stamped, imprinted, designed, born, bred and trained for this task. There was no task.

She was an intelligent woman. Bright brains serve madness as well as they serve sanity — namely, very well indeed. It never occurred to her to give up her mission.

A mixed bag. There are moments of genius, especially the idea of a “witch” doctor triggering a revolution of empathy in a too-tightly controlled society, because she is mistakenly trained to think intuitively. The scene of this doctor discovering the Old City is awesome, and the conclusion of the story is not a typical Christian fanfic melodrama, but it is Christian fanfic.

The bad stuff in the bag is what I would expect from a less experienced writer. The motif of underpeople, anthropomorphic animals thinking as people but used only as slaves, is a bad one. Though Smith attempts to motivate it in the 1962 story, the truth is it does not make sense. The idea of universal love between regular people and underpeople is not even used as a metaphor for the love of nature, nor does it rhyme with Christianity because, throughout the Epistles (ca. 110 CE), the founders of Christianity support slavery, ordering Christian slaves to remain slaves.

The story is often described as a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc, but if so, it is only via several layers of canonizing shenanigans. Crucially, it does not have any war, nor any figure corresponding to Charles VII who took a gamble on the real Joan because it suited his purposes, nor even any connection to the idea of a pro-war female national personification, which is what sustained the legend of Joan of Arc. The more typical Christian material that does exist here is diluted fabulism, including the dumb idea that a bunch of robots miraculously self-destruct when they get some respect.

The extreme pace of the middle section, the obvious Freudian connotations of the tainted “Brown and Yellow Corridor”, the Lady Panc Ashah’s nonsensical foreknowledge and gushing exposition, the many names that mean “five six” or “fifty-six” in various languages, etc. etc.: There’s a juvenile quality to it all that makes the read slow and mostly boring, between the moments of genius. It would have made sense to have Elaine actually working with the underpeople for months or years, or at the very least, to have been retroactively incepted like the cats in “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal” (1964), but instead, she is somehow hypnotized by fate into a sex scene with a complete stranger. That’s typically bad writing, not the kind of weirdness Smith is known for.

References here: Dune (1965), Brazil (1985), Nekojiru Gekijou (1999).

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