Thursday, October 18, 2018

The True Frontier - Cordwainer Smith

The following is a transcription of Extra Sci-fi’s episode “The True Frontier - Cordwainer Smith”

What if I told you that one of the greatest scifi authors of the Golden Age wrote the book on Psychological Warfare? Like, literally, he wrote the book “Psychological Warfare.” What if I told you, that the same guy was called upon to advise JFK, and his godfather was Sun Yat-Sen. What if I told you, he is also a professor who was rumored to sometimes bring his cats to class, and simply address his lectures to his cats? You’d probably agree with me that this is a guy we should talk about.

We couldn’t leave the golden age without touching some of the writes active at the time who were bucking all of the trends we associate with golden age science fiction. And none could be weirder or trend bucky than Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger. Better known, as Cordwainer Smith. Paul Linebarger grew up the son of an American judge, who’d been active in helping the Chinese overthrow their emperor and usher in the Republic of China. He was seeped in Chinese culture, and when, at age six, an accident left him blind in one eye, he received a letter from his godfather, Sun Yat-Sen telling him to stay strong. But soon, the fortunes of the Chinese revolutionaries began to decline. And as China became a fractured and dangerous place, his family packed up and left, spending a few years in countries all over the globe.

Fluent in six languages before he entered college, and getting his PhD by the time he was twenty-three, Paul looked destined for a successful and comfortable academic life, and he would have one. Serving as professor for most of his days. He’d just also be a spy who’d once warned his daughter about dodging the KGB, because you see, World War Two broke out, and like almost all of America, he got swept into it.

So what’s a half-blind academic to do with World War Two, you ask? Well, apparently, helped found the US Office of War Information, and set up the United States first psychological warfare units and when it came time for the office to find an operative to serve in China, he found himself writing the job description, which he proceeded to immediately write in such a way that the job requirements were so completely ludicrous, that only one person the very godson of Sun Yat-Sen could possibly fill them.

Soon he was piling around with Chiang Kai-Shek and kicking around China doing things that are still redacted. But when the war ended, he returned to civilian life, and penned his first truly major work, and perhaps the most important work to bear his own name, the book Psychological Warfare. It’s one of the foundational texts in the now all too active field of messing with other people’s minds, but it’s his other work we care about. The work he did under other names. In a burst of energy following the war, he published a spy novel under the name Felix C. Forrest, but they didn’t really go anywhere. It was almost by accident that he found his calling, he had an incredible story called “Scanners Live in Vain” about this disturbed vision of space travel, what he called, the great up and out.

In his future, space is an incredibly oppressive place. Traveling through it is physically painful. It destroys people mentally and physically. So humans of the future have found a solution. Most people travel between planets in a sort of cryogenic sleep. Shuttled around on ships crewed by humans who have had all their nerve endings severed so they can’t feel the pain of space.

Most of the crew are convicts sentenced to this life, but a small portion of them are Scanners. People who have voluntarily chosen to have all their nerve endings burnt out, except those connected to their eyes which have metal shields surgically implanted behind them. These people function as captains and more importantly watch the dials on boxes implanted into their crew’s chests that monitor and adjust all of the body’s functions since the crew can’t feel pain or even sense things like their heart beating too fast.

But once per month, these scanners can come home and cranch, or basically become a normal human being. The story follows a character who is cranched when an emergency occurs and all of the scanners are called together. Someone has found a way to travel through space without the pain. The Scanners know this will make them obsolete, and feeling nothing, they vote to murder the person who discovered this rather than let humanity have this gift. But the protagonist currently having normal sensation realizes this would be monstrous.

Which is super weird for a Golden Age sci-fi story, so it was rejected everywhere.

Finally after basically giving up on it under the name Cordwainer Smith, he sent it on a whim to a little-known magazine who offered to publish if they didn’t pay him for it. But it was stuck in the mind of one reader, Frederik Pohl, a man we’re going to be talking about some twenty years down the line.

Frederik Pohl did work publishing and editing sci-fi. One of the things he loved to do was put out anthologies because basically they were no work for relatively decent pay so he wanted to stick this odd story in his collection. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find who the heck Cordwainer Smith was. Finally, after many convoluted steps, he tracked down Paul Lineberger who was delighted to have his work published. Shortly thereafter Frederik Pohl became the editor of Galaxy magazine, and it was off to the races for one Cordwainer Smith.

After this, Cordwainer Smith created one of the most expansive and intriguing Sci-Fi mythos of all time, it spans fifteen thousand years and the extremities of space, but the reader only gets to see small parts at a time. It’s about the human instrumentality. It’s where that term enters Sci-Fi and it’s filled with things no one was talking about in the Golden Age.

Smith envisions a society of humans and under-people where human beings live in absolute comfort, while under-people take on the tasks that humanity has long since abandoned, all managed by a group of powerful psionics known as the Instrumentality which guide and shape humanity’s destiny. But what makes it interesting is the strange twist he gives all these concepts. The Under-people are basically animals that have been engineered to look just like people but retain some of their animal traits. So a dog person might be incredibly loyal while a bull person would have some of the slow plotting strength of a bull.

To humanity, they serve as second-class citizens, while true humans often loathe to even be touched by them. But in the end, it’s they who retain the capacity for empathy and emotion while humanity itself is trapped in a stifling bubble of perfect safety and comfort. And unlike many of the Golden Age works about humanity being too comfortable, Smith’s stuff isn’t about how humanity needs to toughen up or how everyone is getting too weak and soft these days. His work is about the joy we experience in overcoming and the hope that can only exist alongside uncertainty. It’s about how struggle makes us more human, better able to relate and understand each other, and lets us experience empathy in ways that total comfort may cut us off from. And what’s really surprising in a golden age work, the Instrumentality eventually realizes they were wrong all along, they return to humanity all of the culture and the struggles they’d long protected it from in the rediscovery of mankind, which makes it this bizarre, but beautiful reflection from an old cold warrior on the world he lived through and the things his bosses espouse.

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The True Frontier - Cordwainer Smith

The following is a transcription of Extra Sci-fi’s episode “The True Frontier - Cordwainer Smith” What if I told you that one of the great...