Uncanny Valley Digest: Cordwainer Smith Redux

Smith with his cats, Melanie and Griselda, 1956. (C’Mell was inspired by Melanie.) Click image for source article.

Our Cordwainer Smith discussion twanged like a rubber rock band! We’ve read Cordwainer Smith before, but wanted to drill down a little deeper. For good background information, below is a link to a 2018 piece in Johns Hopkins Magazine on Smith. He was raised at a tense and interesting historical double crossroads between American Western and Chinese Eastern, as well as Dynastic China giving way to Communist China.


In a letter to his agent, Linebarger explained that his stories “intended to lay bare the human mind, to throw torches over the underground lakes of the human soul, to show the chambers wherein the ageless dramas of self-respect, God, courage, sex, love, hope, envy, decency, and power go on forever.”

Smith with one of his beloved cats. Click image for Hoover Institution source page.

Smith’s real name (though he had many) was Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger. His father was Paul Myron Wentworth Linebarger, a U.S. judge in the Philippines who became an early financial supporter and legal adviser to Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China. Cordwainer’s father made sure he was born in the U.S.A., but was soon after brought to China, and christened Lin Bah Loh (Forest of Incandescent Bliss). Sun Yat-sen was his godfather. Young Paul would spend most of his childhood either in China or in a boarding school in Hawaii. At the latter, he lost his eye in a nasty tussle with a fellow student. His adolescent imagination was active, instead of a journal he kept a notebook of alternate identities for himself, like a young Jason Bourne. He grew up to work in the military and with CIA intelligence, mostly in creating anti-communist propaganda for the Chinese.

A lot of the subtext of reading Smith is the knowledge that he was a careerist of psychological warfare, particularly during the Cold War era. We’re talking about a time when the U.S. military was testing hallucinogenics on human subjects, often with the goal of weaponizing them. So there are some weird psychological hints in his writing that imply Smith may be blowing off steam about some disturbing things he’s seen in his line of work that he can’t actually talk about.

It looks like Cordwainer Smith prefigured lots of stuff. Here are some quality books and movies that were recommended during this discussion:
True Names (1968) by Vernor Vinge. (imagined the internet, particularly trolls and hackers wreaking havoc and the cops try to find them)
The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman (a Vietnam era sci-fi)
The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers (culture civilization in the canopy of trees)
Adiamante (1996) – L.E. Modesitt Jr. (a planetary defense system like the kittons, and hate-filled invaders)
Film: A Face In The Crowd, starring Andy Griffith (as you’ve never seen him before). Strongly recommended by Meg.

Now, the notes!

by 1-0-4, at deviantart. Click image to visit the artist’s site.

Scanners Live In Vain
Meg: His first published story, 1950. This story was published last resort in a rinky dink sci-fi magazine. Then it was anthologized by Frederick Pohl, and that’s when Smith’s career started.
Nowell: Please, stop saying “cranch.”

Martel can’t hear. He’s deaf by interface. The scanners are separated from their physiology and interact with it via machines. Sort of like remote avatar mech fighting.

Scanners have awareness without senses. They use a “talking finger” with abbreviations that resemble texting. “Is Vmct mad?”
“Bzz Bzz. Ha ha. Gd ol’ boy.”

Not exactly an avatar mech body, but a body modified, all functions routed through a control panel before reaching the brain.

Cordwainer Smith had a false eye and was nearly blind in the other. He taught his students: Notice everything, but be prepared for surprises. Then he’d pop out his eye and freak them out.

Nice twist: a new technology that will make scanners obsolete.

So, a scanner revolt is brewing. Who is the master and who is the slave?
In the Instrumentality of Mankind interstellar travel, genetically preserved humans, and a sub-class of homunculus. The humans aren’t cyborg at all. They get super old because they travel interstellar.

Habermans and scanners man the interstellar ships while cryogenically protected humans sleep. They are like the spiced-out space folding pilots in Dune.

Nowell: It’s interesting to read this Cold War era sci-fi because it gives glimpses into a world we didn’t live in. Reading contemporary sci-fi we can see todays concerns reflected – the climate, government stability – it’s a little on the nose for me. But here in the old sci-fi we see the social concerns of the Cold War era.

The scanners fancy themselves their own elite class and always exist in a temporal state, an inhuman fugue state. Only Martel, who is cranched at the meeting, has the human sense to see the revolt is wrong.

Humans can communicate better than scanners. In the Insturmentality, it appears that humans are telepathic.

The scanners are so isolated that they aren’t as important as they think they are. Stone is not afraid of the scanner at all, and barely believes that one wants to kill him. The scanners are a small fringe, perhaps.

What has Smith seen? What does he hint at that the average American does not know? Like about toppling cels and fringe governments?

What’s the difference between a haberman and a scanner? The haberman cuts are reversible. And by the end, so are the scanner cuts now. All scanners can be human again. They didn’t live in vain! 🙂 (Except the one he killed to save Adam Stone.)

Found C’mell, by Lia Chan. Click image for aritist’s page.

The Ballad Of Lost C’mell
The quirk is pronounced.
Nowell: Damn dude, you went there.
Suhail: To make it a little kookier, C’Mell is inspired by one of Smith’s household cats, named “Cat Melanie.”
This speaks to Smith’s tendency to tweak a plot point, like cat-gene geisha girls.
What capitalism can/will become:
p.2 “If they became bankrupt, they went to the Poorhouse, where they were killed painlessly by means of gas.”

Meg: He mixes tones and registers. A lot of it is very pulpy, yet there’s a different flavor.

Another revolt theme, like in “Scanners Live In Vain.” How many insurgent cels did Smith ferret out?

cmell by Pierre Lacombe

C’Mell by Pierre Lacombe, 1974. Click image for source page.

The animal stock bred underhumans are the new frontier of civil rights. Civil rights conflict is always defusing otherness. Being genetically unmodified is a sign of superiority.

Let’s discuss the Instrumentality. What is it like? Fascist? Utopian? Why is it so hard to tell the difference?

C’mell, the “girlygirl” is a translation of an Asian concept. A geisha’s world.
“You may be working for Earth but don’t ever get the idea that you’re as good as a person.”

Jestocost and C’mell – who’s the master and who’s the slave? Gets a little under your skin then veers off.

It feels like he’s, in part, processing his career in military intelligence and his own life being raised in China, himself growing up as an other.

“There’s a special sort of majesty to kindness. It’s the best part of being people.”

Was intel bureaucracy like this? Bureaucratic maneuverings and meetings (in both stories “C’mell” and “Scanners“). More meetings and discussions than actions. But he gets away with it by having so many tiny reveals and subtexts.

Western Science Is So Wonderful
Spy vs. spy stuff about telepathy and psychological manipulation.
Meg: It’s baffling.
Nowell: An American, a German, and a Russian walk into a Martian demon…
Meg: The thin boundary between science and magic depends on your cultural perspective.

How does this fit into some kind of anti-Communist vein we’d expect from Smith’s work? What have scholars said about this?

The Martian with a fetish for lighters changes himself into a solid gold milk truck?
As Meg said: It’s baffling.

The Good Friends
Give me a break. 🙂 Why does this era of sci-fi hate women so much? (This will come up in The Calculating Stars, by the way, which is set in the 1950s, but from a feminist perspective.)

Hypo kits? Intravenous drug, and safety apparatus like a mask.

Underwhelming. It seemed like it was part of a tragedy.
Meg: Great setup with doctor and nurse and the shot. It seems nefarious. Is it a psy-ops thing? Is he being interrogated? Nope, falls flat.

What was in that shot? What about the nurse? It’s the girl that’s going to cry, of course.

Meg: A story that rode on a single concept  but not much was done with it plot-wise.

A stranded space traveler is suffering from hallucinogenic madness after 20 years on isolation. Imaginary friends and lots of drugs.

Image by Virgil Finlay, Galaxy Magazine, 1961

Mother Hittons Little Kittons (1961)
Cat and mouse. So much cloak and dagger. Them (the instrumentality) being so many steps ahead of this off-world thief/assassin.

What is this name about? 🙂 Benjacomin Bozart. Benjacomin’ to get ya’!
Benjacomin is from a planet of thieves. But the Norstralians were already ahead of him. Some of the spies were unaware that some of the spies were their allies.

Benjacomin is cultishly charasmatic, but all for naught. He kills a child for information, he’s viscous. Comforts the mother. Evil so near, a flash away. A predator of children. That Cordwainer way of suddenly and briefly turning the dial to 11. Dark side assassin. It’s like Smith knows people like this.

Woah. “He who controls the spice…” kind of stuff.
Norstrailia made a youth drug: santaclara, or “stroon.”
“With treasure like this, the Norstralians owned an unimaginable world whose resources overreached all conceivable limits of money. They could buy anything. They could pay with other peoples’ lives.”
Oh fuck. Like the Sacklers.

Meg: A mixture of all that animal energy focused and projected outward.

A real paper book, with an entry [which we later learned was falsified by agents] about Benjamin Hitton, who made the Norstarlian defense system possible.

Hint at space propulsion technology. Is this a “warp” drive?
Space passengers are sedated for travel.
Each “world” is a country.

PKDesque stuff, drawing from his professional life. Spies and double agents, Cold War operative stuff.

Heh. Taking down political leaders, in a nutshell. “The agent, in his turn had been seduced years before, debauched in the middle of his career, forced into temporary honesty, blackmailed and sent home. ”

Misinformation, propagandization, pervasive and subtle. False encyclopedia entry.

David, did PKD express any interest in, or influence from, Cordwainer Smith?
They were contemporaries, but worked in different idioms. Smith died in 1966, just as Dick’s career was taking off. Smith seems nostalgic for the pulps and wants to relive his youth.

Nowell: We need our Dick-Head! Call in the Dick-Head.

Olympians are naturally blind. They’re all like Jordi LaForge!

Even though Benjacomin is plying his evil, Norstralia’s on the case.

“Sin is a lot of work. The sheer effort it requires often shows in the human face.”

Meg: This story feels like the most polished of the ones we’ve read. “Western Science” seemed like a draft, a lark written by the seat of his pants. But this one is more refined.

An Old North Australia sea shanty. “Stroon” grows on sheep.

Mother Hitton has backups. Kittons: wild killing animals bred from mink stock. The kittons’ rage empowers an emphatic satellite defense system relayed off the moon. [This is a lot like Adiamante with the ruthless planetary defense system powered by psionics.]

“Pin-lighters.” The pilots from “Game of Rat and Dragon.”

Benjacomin mink-attacked! The mink hunger and bloodlust infuses his psyche and he destroys himself in a blind rage. He rips out his left eyeball. (Cordwainer is one-eyed.)

This is that sore tooth smith plays with, Those dark places inside a person’s own psyche that can literally destroy the person. That realm of psychological warfare. Turning the person against itself. Like “the revolutionary,” in Gene Wolfe’s Shadow Of The Torturer.

Turns out Benjacomin was never a step ahead of the Norstralians.

And Viola Siderea (Benjacomin’s home planet of thieves and assassins.) is in debt to Norstralia for ever. Not just for a mink satellite counter assassination, but an economic assassination as well. Norstralia hits with a heavy hammer.

Recalls what Meg said about the way Smith mixes tones. Hokey, yet gruesome.


Thank you for reading. Reading Rules!

Further reading:
The Official Cordwainer Smith website, run by his daughter Rosana Hart

A Hoover Institution description of Smith and his archives at the Institution.

An article by Rosana Hart about Smith, his cats, and her childhood.


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.
This entry was posted in Authors and Writing, Funny, Science Fiction, Short Stories, summer reading, uncanny valley and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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