Uncanny Valley Digest: Cordwainer Smith

Hello, readers. Welcome back! Last night’s discussion took a turn for the kink in us all. Reading more short stories this summer, instead of a book-a-week, has been very favorably received by the rest of the group. Great turnout last night, with two California call-ins and three live crew in the sci-fi lab. Each reading session covers two short stories by hand-picked authors. I’m going to dedicate one post to each short story, and publish them spaced apart. Now, to digest some Cordwainer Smith:

“The Game of Rat & Dragon” (1955), Cordwainer Smith (Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger)

Interesting pairing. Both of these authors (Cordwainer and Tiptree) worked for the military and U.S. intelligence. Cordwainer was an Army Colonel and an expert in psychological warfare.  As Paul M. A. Linebarger, he literally wrote the book on the subject, called Psychological Warfare (which, by the way, he dedicated to his wife). [!]

Both authors used pseudonyms to publish their science fiction. Though Tiptree said she was doing it to preserve her academic reputation, Cordwainer more likely did it to hide his ties to the intelligence community. (You’ll forgive me for referring to him by his first name, but “Cordwainer” is too quirky and rare a word. I want to take every opportunity I can to use it in this post, because there are scant other places I’ll get to use it.) For a more detailed biography of Linebarger, visit his entry at the Arlington National Cemetery Website, this link. http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/linebarg.htm

Meg: Both of these stories are anthologized a lot.

Nikita: I’ve never seen them before they’re a real treat.

Cordwainer was a New Wave precursor, who inspired those reality shifters in the 60s. How many did he influence? LeGuin, it clearly seems.

Gill: Early LeGuin-style interspecies mind melding stuff. I thought it would be gimmicky, all about the pinlighting and the terminology.

Nikita: I thought it was going to be more of a dragons in space fantasy. But it turned into a cool conceptualization of traveling at light speed.

Pinlighting? it’s the use of light to dispel the dark malevolent consciousness-eaters that dwell in the interstellar dark.

Gill: Very Freudian dark abyss void staring back at us.

It’s treat that the Partners (cats) help prevent against that kind of psychosis.

Planoforming- using telepaths to navigate faster than light travel.

Gill: It’s a really coherent imagining of a really far-out, different system, tangentially connected to our reality..

Nowell: Yet it doesn’t feel stilted either. Doesn’t feel wooden. Totally sat with me. The language is somehow lean and commonplace, but the things described are complex and subtle.

Suhail: Lots here for the cat lover.  Cat relations and emotional intelligence and psychology.

Meg: He’s messing with human vs. alien archetype. Gets into that hubris about astronauts. The fact that as a species the cat is equivalent and necessary to our survival.

Illustration from the magazine edition, from Gutenberg.netNikita: A little flavor of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game. These pinlighters are retiring at age 26 after 10 years service. These pinlighter telepaths start as children (much like Linebarger did). For example, the little girl new recruit, West, being leered at by the cat, Captain Wow. It has visceral undertones, not explicitly carnal, but deeper. And no one is concerned about it. That’s just the way it is.

David wonders how this went over back when it was published in ‘55. Must have seemed quite subversive. Hmm.

Being telepathic and melding with the cats has somehow made Underwood a pariah in polite female society. Pinlighters are creepy and bad with the ladies. And by the end, Underhill can not imagine a bond greater than that he feels with his cat Partner. How could a woman ever compare? Can’t.

Meg: The sexualization of pinlighter/cat pairings. If you’re a male pinlighter do you have to be paired with a female cat for it to work best? The girl West was paired with Captain Wow, but Underhill gets the Lady May.

The author did that, yes, but he also includes a description of how Partner pairings are done by a roll of dice. So maybe just a slip in style there.

P.297  Telepathy as a platform for very good and nuanced descriptions of interacting and changing states of mind.

p.297 Lady May experiences things before Underhill.

Illustration from the magazine edition, from Gutenberg.netP.296 “Human eyes and cat eyes looked across an immensity which no words could meet, but which affection spanned in a single glance.”

Lady May’s survival is unclear. And she saved Underhill. He’s struggling with language and humans at the end. “Words were all that could reach ordinary people, like this doctor.” It’s a step down to have to deal with other humans after being in this mind meld with a cat.

The little kitty football space capsules with thermonuclear magnesium light cannons. That’s awesome. Imagine how well trained they are (anyone who’s ever tried to strap a cat into a pet carrier understands).

A lot of this story deals with desire and sex, and makes cats partially analogous to human females in a way because of course neither can ever be understood by patriarchal oafs. Ha.

Underhill is damaged at the end, some kind of damage from coming in direct contact with a Dragon (or Rat, depending on your perspective). He may be out of work, in that special part of the hospital where dragon survivors go?

"Hes hot for the cat now!"David: Look at this ending! He’s hot for the cat now!

p. 299 Underhill is having girl problems. For some reason, girls think that guys who fly with Partners are creeps. Maybe it’s the telepathy. In the end, he loves his cat more than women.

Gill: It is really engaging and fun. The structure lures you into thinking you’ll be deciphering the tech vocab, but it twists far away from that and brings in some dynamic psychological and narrative elements.

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

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About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
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3 Responses to Uncanny Valley Digest: Cordwainer Smith

  1. Pingback: Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading Group | My Writes

  2. Pingback: Uncanny Valley Digest: James Tiptree, Jr. | My Writes

  3. Pingback: Uncanny Valley Digest: James Tiptree, Jr.

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