Yesterday's Tomorrows: Cordwainer Smith
by Graham Sleight
from Locus Magazine, April 2007
Norstrilia, Cordwainer Smith (Ballantine 278pp, pb) 1975. Cover by Gray Morrow; (NESFA Press 0-915-36861-7, $22.00, 249pp, hc) 1994. Cover by John Berkey.
The Best of Cordwainer Smith, Cordwainer Smith (Doubleday, 342pp, hc) 1975. Cover by Janice C. Tate. As The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith (Gollancz 1-857-98819-1, £7.99, 379pp, pb) 1999.
We the Underpeople, Cordwainer Smith (Baen 978-1-416-52095-5, $15.00, 465pp, tp) 2006.
Strangeness, said John Gardner, is the one thing in fiction that cannot be faked. Strangeness is, famously, the defining characteristic of Cordwainer Smith's science fiction, and a good deal of ink is expended in the introductions of the books explaining where that strangeness comes from. (I may be about to do the same.) But strangeness, like newness or transgression, is something cultures are often able to adapt too quickly. So I was very curious, as I reread Smith's first published story, "Scanners Live in Vain" (1950), to see how distinctive it remained.
It begins, "Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stamped across the room by judgment, not by sight. When he saw the table hit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Luci's face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg were broken." So, straight away, we see that Martel whoever he is must be deprived of direct access to senses such as hearing. Moreover, and this is the real trick, we get to see that without the use of jargon. He doesn't adjust, say, his metabolic levels or his cortical response away from anger, but his blood. When, a couple of sentences later, we're told that he checks his "chestbox of instruments," that too is a transparent term. We assume that he's some kind of cyborg. On the other hand, in the next paragraph, a genuinely new term is introduced, when Martel says to Luci that he must cranch. (According to John J. Pierce, Smith took the word "cranch" from an abandoned shop in his neighbourhood and had no idea what it meant.) At the very least, this story is the work of someone who thinks closely about language, even though he writes in terse, seemingly plain declarative sentences.
More detail emerges as the story goes on. Martel is one of a number of "Scanners," men whose bodies have been altered to allow them to undertake the rigors of space exploration. Scanners are deprived of direct access to their sense data, but can occasionally "cranch" and thereby experience smell, sound, and so on. Throughout, Smith is very specific about how it feels to be a Scanner both the agony of space exploration and the temporary epiphany of having their senses back. Martel is summoned to a meeting of Scanners by one of his superiors, Vomact, and attends despite still being cranched. The meeting is an interesting device for Smith to use: several pages are devoted to a ritual in which the Scanners acknowledge their state and their duties. This helps to establish the peculiar formal tone of the story, while also serving as a huge infodump about the Scanners: rituals are, after all, occasions when we tell each other what we already know. At the meeting, it becomes clear that the Scanner way of life is under threat. A man called Adam Stone has discovered a way to explore space without the pain that necessitated the creation of the Scanners. Vomact, as leader of the Scanners present, perceives this as a threat and tries to convince the meeting that Stone should be killed.
The centre of the story is the debate about whether this assassination should go ahead. Martel has a unique perspective: "Coming cranched, and in full possession of smell-sound-taste-feeling, he reacted more or less as a normal man would. He saw his friends and colleagues as a lot of cruelly driven ghosts, posturing out the meaningless ritual of their indefeasible damnations." Smith has a superb coup a few pages later when, angered by the way the debate is going, Martel shouts, "Honorable Scanners, this is judicial murder." But no one else is cranched, no one can hear him, and no one wants to watch his lips move. So he decides to take matters into his own hands. The ending of the story, as Martel seeks out Stone for himself, has always seemed a little too pat to me. But the story's window on its world, the way it makes manifest in its language the changes it describes, is both clear and estranging. My other argument with it is the way it treats the character Luci. We're told that Martel's marriage to her is a "brave experiment," hinting that he is the only Scanner to have tried anything like this. But there's no convincing rationale given for why an otherwise intelligent and sane woman would marry a man who had willingly deprived himself of so much as well, one assumes, as being away from home quite a bit. (Samuel R. Delany's story "Aye, and Gomorrah..."  might be seen as a revisionist take on this question, and on Smith's story in general.) Luci ends up as just a plot device, someone to appear in the opening scenes to enable the nature of Scanner-ness to be demonstrated. As it stands, "Scanners Live in Vain" is a story about absence the absence of sensation, of morality. Luci's absence as a human character is the only unintended one.
A quick word about the bibliography here. The NESFA Press volume The Rediscovery of Man reprints all 30-odd of Smith's science fiction stories, including the Casher O'Neill ones later fixed up as Quest of the Three Worlds (1966). The identically titled Gollancz volume is a reprint of the 1975 Del Rey volume The Best of Cordwainer Smith, which comprises about half of the complete short fiction. NESFA has also done an edition of Smith's only SF novel, Norstrilia, originally published in two halves as The Planet Buyer (1964) and The Underpeople (1968) and only published in one volume in 1975. And the new Baen volume We the Underpeople contains five long stories plus Norstrilia. Without wanting to preempt my views on Smith's fiction as a whole, I have to say that the NESFA Rediscovery of Man is an astonishing bargain: it's an impeccably proofread and designed hardback, helpfully annotated with all the background information you might need.
All these editions of Smith are open about his name being a pseudonym for Dr Paul Linebarger (1913-66), evidently a very accomplished man in his own right. He was born in Milwaukee but brought up in Japan and China, where his father was an advisor to Sun Yat-Sen. In addition to the SF stories he published from 1950 until his death, he also wrote an apparently definitive book on psychological warfare, as well as several mainstream novels under other pseudonyms. (It's also been suggested that he is the SF author depicted in "The Jet-Propelled Couch", one of the case histories in the psychoanalyst Robert Lindner's The Fifty-Minute Hour.) Even without the circumstantial evidence of Lindner's book, it's easy to see, or imagine one sees, characteristics from Linebarger's life in Smith's work. A well-educated man, skilled in foreign languages, would be likely to bring models from different cultures, such as the ritualistic formality of the Scanners, to his stories. You might also expect him to be especially attentive to the use of English. (One of the extracts I quoted above from "Scanners Live in Vain" used the word "indefeasible" to describe the Scanners' condition. It's an obscure word well, I had to look it up but precisely the right one, meaning something that cannot be annulled or undone.)
The other important thing to say about Smith is that his stories were knitted into a notional future history, covering over 15,000 years from the present day. Reviewing Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds in Locus a few months ago, Gary Wolfe made the point that future histories weren't histories and weren't about the future which begs the question of what they're for. In "Scanners Live in Vain", the Scanners were working for a vaguely defined but evidently powerful authority called the Instrumentality. The large-scale narrative of Smith's future history is that of the development and eventual weakening of the Instrumentality in the face of "the Old Strong Religion," aka Christianity. This mirrors Smith's own late-developing interest in spiritual matters and reinforces one's sense that in some senses the stories represent him working out a private mythology.
Take, for instance, "The Game of Rat and Dragon" (1956), which notionally takes place 3,000 years on from "Scanners Live in Vain". In some ways, it seems a very prescient work, rendering space travel into an arcade-game simulation through which "pinlighters" and their "partners" can navigate ships safe from the "dragons" who threaten them. The descriptions of the simulation created by the pinlighter setup are strikingly similar both to the game simulations in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (1985) and to William Gibson's cyberspace. But the "partners" are (enhanced) cats, apparently named after those in Linebarger's own house at the time he wrote the story. So you can see a personal meaning being invested in the story that no external reader will be able to apprehend: Linebarger knew what these cats looked like, and no one else will.
Another layer to be unpicked in many Smith stories is allusion to past works of literature. Some of these are oriental models which I'm not familiar with, but some are western works. "Drunkboat" (1963), for instance, riffs on Rimbaud's "Le bateau ivre", "A Planet Named Shayol" (1961) references Dante, and "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" (1964) retells the story of Joan of Arc. One doesn't need to get these allusions, I think, to apprehend the stories' worth. But there is a richer reading experience to be had when you can see some of the games Smith is playing. At times, he almost seems like a collage artist, pasting together whatever found materials come to hand.
There are certain kinds of writing he's definitely not interested in. He's not much of a visual writer, for instance: the description of the pinlighter's set in "The Game of Rat and Dragon" is unusual because, for once, he's trying to describe what something looks like. He's interested in wordplay and rhymes: many of the stories have poems or songs embedded in them, and that's leaving aside his knack for titles like "Mother Hittun's Littul Kittons", "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard", and "Think Blue, Count Two". He is very attuned to emotional states and is fond of one-sentence paragraphs trying to convey striking shifts in them. Because of this, I think, and because he tends to focus on a small group of protagonists each time, his stories often seem to be arguing for the great-man theory of history. (Or, more rarely, the great-woman theory.) Individual actions can set off large-scale changes in history far more so than more abstract forces.
As an example, consider "The Crime and Glory of Commander Sudzal" (1964), a story set about midway through the timeline we have. Human settlement on the planet Arachosia goes wrong once, as Smith puts it, "Femininity became carcinogenic!" It's a rather sledgehammerish introduction to a reasonably serious attempt to talk about some issues of gender. Smith explains that yes, he is serious, and that due to some unknown form of radiation, all the women of this planet begin developing tumours. They are therefore forced to inject themselves with testosterone and become "men-women," and the society adapts into a brutal but necessary shape as a result. It's an interesting premise, though not treated very sympathetically. But it's framed by the far less original story of the intervention of Commander Sudzal (and another batch of cats), and a lot of the questions one would like to see explored about the society remain unexamined.
A test-case for Smith's view of history is a cluster of stories set around the same period late in the chronology and describing the eventual rebirth of what we might consider to be "human" values. These are the works collected in We the Underpeople. As Smith puts it in one of them, "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" (1962),
Ever since mankind had gone through the Rediscovery of Man, bringing back governments, money, newspapers, national languages, sickness, and occasional death, there had been the problem of the underpeople people who were not human, but merely humanly shaped from the stock of Earth animals. They could speak, sing, read, write, work, love, and die; but they were not covered by human law, which simply defined them as ‘homunculi' and gave them a legal status close to animals or robots.
"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" (1961) gives a sense of the headiness of this period, but the real narrative is that of the Underpeople. (It has obvious parallels with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but doesn't force that particular allegorical reading too far.) C'Mell is another cat-inspired character, this time a kind of advocate/revolutionary for the Underpeople. Having engineered some change in the story bearing her name, she crops up again in Smith's novel Norstrilia.
The novel is as full of striking images as any of Smith's work. Early on, for instance, we're shown the protagonist Rod McBan's farm: "He found that Daisy, a young three-hundred ton sheep, had not been turned for two days and had to be relanolized on her ground side before canker set in; then he discovered that the nutrient tubes for Tanner, his thousand-ton ram, had become jammed, and that the poor sheep was getting a bad case of edema in its gigantic legs." But the problem is that this is strong medicine, and that Smith has to work a trade-off between striking local images and narrative drive. For me, at least, narrative drive loses out: rather too much of the book is a picaresque of McBan's wanderings among the Underpeople. One ends up with the conclusion that Smith was perhaps best suited to the shorter lengths at which he worked for most of his career.
Reading Smith, one is aware, again and again, of how little one is understanding. I'm sure that was a deliberate effect. Gary Wolfe suggested that the writers he was reviewing wrote future histories as "epic fables." That label might be applicable to Smith's work, but Smith also invites the idea that one might create a future history as an aesthetic object in its own right. Smith was extraordinarily uninterested in what the future might actually be like, but he was devoted to creating narratives that recreated the things that mattered to him. Because he didn't say in so many words what those things were, the reader's always at a disadvantage in his stories and, I think, is meant to be. Strangeness cannot be faked, but it can be it has to be worked on and earned.
Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and becomes editor of Foundation from the end of 2007.
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