Science fiction writers do not so much invent the future as they inform it.
I mean inform here in two ways – first, they give us the information we need to process issues in the present moment and to therefore anticipate some likely consequences of the choices we face as a society and second, having given a vivid picture of a possible future, they inspire scientists, policy makers, and others to reshape reality to conform to their depiction.
How many contemporary technological developments emerged from designers whose imagination was incited by some science fiction novel or television series? Without Star Trek, would we have flip phones? Without Snow Crash would we have had Second Life?
I have been pondering this relationship between science fiction and reality a lot this week having recent taught some short stories by Cordwainer Smith in my transmedia entertainment and storytelling class at USC.
If you just mumbled, “Cordwainer who?,” you are not alone. Smith’s works are rarely cited today. Smith wrote short stories rather than novels, scattered them across a range of publications, and published many of them after his death. Even hardcore science fiction fans may know him only for his first published story, “Scanners Live in Vane,” which is included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology which is often deployed in science fiction classes. The New England Science Fiction Association collected and republished his stories several years ago as The Rediscovery of Man. Maybe it’s time for the rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith.
When I first read “Scanners Live in Vain” some years ago, I was stunned. The writing is challenging and vaguely modernist, especially when compared to the hard edged realism and classicism of his 1950s era contemporaries like Robert Heinlein or Issac Asimov. He thrusts you into the world of the story without much preliminaries; he relished the strange and unfamiliar elements which are dealt with it ways that are at once defamiliarizing (in that they break from our world) and familiarizing (in that they treat these strange elements as if they were perfectly normal, even banal.) In many ways, the story’s focus on the fusion of man and machine, which gets depicted with ambivalence rather than dread, helped pave the way for similar representations in the early cyberpunk movement.
As I’ve read more of his work, I’ve become fascinated with the ways that he prefigured science fictions fascination with media change – digital media primarily in the case of the Cyberpunks but something very close to what I call Convergence Culture in the case of Cordwainer Smith. Consider, for example, this passage from “The Dead Woman of Clown Town” which seems to anticipate the concept of viral media:
“A bad idea can spread like a mutated germ. If it is at all interesting, it can leap from one mind to another halfway across the universe before it has a stop put to it. Look at the ruinous fads and foolish fashions which have nuisanced mankind even in the ages of the highest orderliness.”
Here, Smith tries to capture the perspective of a totalitarian regime which seeks to manipulate the flow of information in order to prevent a shift in public sentiment towards the underpeople, a permanent underculture which exists of half-human/half-animals. Smith warns after a particularly empassioned speech on human rights of the need to reframe what is being said lest it undermine the established order:
“The dog-girl was making points which had some verbal validity. If they were left in the form of mere words without proper context, they might affect heedless or impressionable minds.”
Published in 1964, “Dead Woman of Clown Town,” can be easily read as an allegory for the civil disobedience and nonviolent protest which shaped not only the then-contemporary protests of Martin Luther King, but also a range of protest movements across Asia during the struggle against colonialism. In the story, the human, Elaine, and the dog-girl, D’Joan, lead an army of underpeople on a march which brings them into the face of armed guards, who obligingly shoot them down or in D’Joan’s case, torches her alive, forcing them to confront the brutal consequences of their own discriminatory policies.
Smith’s depiction is particularly concerned with the psychological experience of subordination and oppression, using for example the figure of C’Mell, the cat-woman and professional “girly-girl” (escort) in “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” to deal with the ways that the enslaved must develop much greater knowledge of the dominant group than the other way around:
“She had a womanliness which was truer than that of any hominid woman. She knew the value of her trained smile, her splendidly kept red hair with its unimaginably soft texture, her lithe young figure with firm breasts and persuasive hips. She knew down to the last millimeter the effect which her legs had on hominid men. True humans kept few secrets from her. The men betrayed themselves by their unfulfillable desires, the women by their irrepressible jealousies. But she knew people best of all by not being one herself. She had to learn by imitation, and imitation is conscious. A thousand little things which ordinary women took for granted, or thought about just once in a whole lifetime, were subjects of acute and intelligent study. She was a girl by profession; she was human by assimilation; she was an inquisitive cat in her genetic nature….Sometimes it made her laugh to look at human women with their pointed-up noses and their proud airs, and to realize that she knew more about the men who belonged to the human women than the human women themselves ever did.”
Key scenes occur at the moment when the human characters are forced to experience something of the subjective experience of the lower castes, as occurs when Elaine gets linked to D’Joan through telepathy, which is understood here as a kind of radicalization process, a shift in sympathy not unlike that experienced by many white liberals in the Civil Rights era who were motivated by the burning of black churches and the slaughter of black children to rethink a lifetime of segregationist practice.
Smith’s interest in the concept of information war-fare and media as a resource for political transformation can be explained by his own fascinating life story. Here’s some of the details as presented by Wikipedia:
Cordwainer Smith – pronounced CORDwainer – was the pseudonym used by American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (July 11, 1913-August 6, 1966) for his science fiction works. Linebarger was also a noted East Asia scholar and expert in psychological warfare…
Linebarger was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father was Paul M. W. Linebarger, a lawyer and political activist with close ties to the leaders of the Chinese revolution of 1911. As a result of those connections, Linebarger’s godfather was Sun Yat-sen, considered the father of Chinese nationalism. As a child, Linebarger was blinded in his right eye; the vision in his remaining eye was impaired by infection. When he later pursued his father’s interest in China, Linebarger became a close confidant of Chiang Kai-shek. His father moved his family to France and then Germany while Sun Yat-sen was struggling against contentious warlords in China. As a result, Linebarger was familiar with six languages by adulthood.
At the age of 23, he received a Ph.D. in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University. From 1937 to 1946, Linebarger held a faculty appointment at Duke University, where he began producing highly regarded works on Far Eastern affairs. While retaining his professorship at Duke after the beginning of World War II, he began serving as a second lieutenant of the United States Army, where he was involved in the creation of the Office of War Information and the Operation Planning and Intelligence Board. He also helped organize the Army’s first psychological warfare section. In 1943, he was sent to China to coordinate military intelligence operations. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of major….
In 1947, Linebarger moved to the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, where he served as Professor of Asiatic Studies. He used his experiences in the war to write the book Psychological Warfare (1948), which is regarded by many in the field as a classic text. He eventually rose to the rank of colonel in the reserves. He was recalled to advise the British forces in the Malayan Emergency and the U.S. Eighth Army in the Korean War. While he was known to call himself a “visitor to small wars”, he refrained from becoming involved in Vietnam, but is known to have done undocumented work for the Central Intelligence Agency. He traveled extensively and became a member of the Foreign Policy Association, and was called upon to advise then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
In short, Smith was the consummate political insider both to global politics and to the emergence of what Eisenhower called “the military-industry complex.” He brought to science fiction complex theories of communication, psychology, and political change and at the same time, grafted them onto story traditions he had absorbed from classical Chinese literature and he had learned through his global travels. Underlying his almost surreal stories, then, is a deeper understanding of the nature of power and how governments seek to shape the subjective experience of their populations.
Smith’s relevance for a transmedia class is two-fold. First, Smith was a consummate world builder. All of his 32 short stories and his novel, Norstrilia, take place within a single timeline which spans more than 16000 years of future history and play out across the interconnected history of many different worlds. He depicts a future which emerges from Earth’s past as our cultural traditions are revived, reproduced, forgotten, and reperformed until they have lost much of their meaning, becoming mere formalisms. In this world, he shows an acute understanding of how cultural change impacts the ways we treat each other and how we structure labor and governance. Here, for example, is a vivid passage from “The Story of Lost C’Mell,” another key work in his depiction of the undermen:
“Ever since mankind had gone through the Rediscovery of Man, bringing back governments, money, newspapers, national languages, sickness and occassional 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. Real people from off-world were always called ‘hominads.’ Most of the underpeople did their jobs and accepted their half-slave status without question…. Human beings and hominids had lived so long in an affluent society that they did not know what it meant to be poor. But the lords of the Instrumentality had decreed that underpeople — derived from animal stock — should live under the economics of the Ancient World; they had to have their own kind of money to pay for their rooms, their food, their posessions and the education of their children. If they became bankrupt, they went to the poorhouse, where they were killed painlessly by means of gas. It was evident that humanity, having settled all of its own basic problems, was not quite ready to let Earth animals, no matter how much they might be changed, assume a full equality with man.”
As this opening passage suggests, Smith treats his readers not as outsiders to whom such worlds must be explained but rather as insiders for whom these worlds are already well known. Consider the opening paragraph of “Dead Woman” which refers not only to some of Smith’s other tales but also seeks to debunk existing representations of the events depicted in (yet fabricated for) his story:
“You already know the end — the immense drama of the Lord Jestocost, seventh of his line, and how the cat-girl C’Mell initiated the vast conspiracy. But you do not know the beginning, how the first Lord Jestocost got his name, because of the terror and inspiration which his mother, Lady Goroke, obtained from the famous real-life drama of the dog-girl D’Joan. It is even less likely that you know the other story — the one behind D’Joan. This story is sometimes mentioned, as the matter of the ‘nameless witch,’ which is absurd, because she really had a name. The name was ‘Elaine,’ an ancient and forbidden one.”
Throughout the story, Smith offers many passages which refer outward from the current narration to discuss how the same story was told across many years, across many different media. Here are just a few examples:
“Much later, when people made songs about the strange case of the dog-girl D’Joan, the minstrels and singers had tried to imagine what Elaine felt like, and they had made up The Song of Elaine for her. It is not authentic, but it shows how Elaine looked at her own life before the strange case of D’Joan began to flow from Elaine’s own actions.”
“There are many famous painting of that scene. Most of the paintings show Elaine in rags with the distorted, suffering face of a witch. This is strictly unhistorical. She was wearing her everyday culottes, blouse and twin over-the-shoulder purses when she went in the other end of Clown Town. This was the usual dress on Fomalhaut III at that time….”
“On the actual stage the actors cannot do much with the scene of the interlude, where Joan was cooked in a single night from the size of a child five years old to the tallness of a miss fifteen or sixteen. The biological machine did work well, though at the risk of her life. It made her into a vital, robust yung person, without changing her mind at all. This is hard for any actress to portray. The storyboxes have the advantage. They can show the machine with all sorts of improvements — flashing lights, bits of lightning, mysterious rays. Actually, it looked like a bathtub full of boiling brown jelly, completely covering Joan.”
“This is the scene which we all remember, the first authentic picture tape of the entire incident.”
“You all know about the trial, so there is no need to linger over it. There is another picture of San Shigonanda, the one from his conventional period, which shows it very plainly….This is all clear from the painting, and from the wonderful way that San Shigonanda has of forming them in informal ranks and letting the calm blue light of day shine down on their handsome, hopeless features. With the underpeople, the artist performs real wonders.”
“And you have the real view-tapes, too, if you want to go to a museum. The reality is not as dramatic as the famous painting, but it has value of its own. The voice of Joan, dead these many centuries, is still strangely moving….The words of the trial, they too have survived. Many of them have became famous, all across the worlds.”
“We know what the Lords Femtiosex and Limanono thought they were doing. They were maintaining established order and they were putting it on tape. The minds of men can live together only if the basic ideas are communicated. Nobody has, even now, found a way of recording telepathy directly into an instrument. We get pieces and snatches and wild jumbles, but we never get a satisfactory record of what one of the great ones was transmitting to another. The two male chiefs were trying to put on record all those things about the episode which would teahc careless people not to play with the lives of the underpeople. They were trying to make underpeople understand the rules and designs by virtue of which they had been transformed from animals into the highest servants of man. This would have been hard to do, given the bewildering events of the last few hours, even from one chief of the Instrumentality to another; for the general public, it was almost impossible.”
Smith, thus, depicts a world where the most important stories flow across all available media franchises, get retold many times for many different audiences, with some details being encoded through cultural conventions and others distorted over time. Consider, for example, this description of a gesture which has become more cyptic as it has moved from real-world events to multiple media representations:
“The records show his appearance. He comes in at the right side of the scene, bows respectfully to the four Chiefs and lifts his right hand in the traditional sign for ‘beg to interrupt,’ an odd twist of the elevated hand which the actors had found it very difficult to copy when they tried to put the whole story of Joan and Elaine into a single drama. (In fact, he had no more idea that future ages would be studying his casual appearance than did the others. The whole episode was characterized by haste and precipitateness, in light of what we now know.)”
Smith’s version, then, becomes not the point of origin for the story but rather a debunking of conventional versions.
Not only does he imagine the event as retold many times after they occur, Smith also depicts the events as predetermined because the figures have already become encrusted in mythology. A human intelligence embedded in a computer has run a range of simulations to try to determine how the underpeople can escape their brutal fate at the hands of the human, how they might avoid death. Out of all of the possibilities, she has discovered one which leads to the best possible outcome and she has sought to prepare her followers for that eventuality. Generations have named their children “D’Joan” and have rehearsed the particulars of their mythology so they can play the roles that are required of them. When Elaine, the witch, wonders into their warren by accident, she must be instructed in her expected role and actions, and must be continually reminded her function within the prescripted narrative whenever she seeks to exert free will. Like many of the other scenarios, this script results in the death of its key participants, yet it has the chance of forcing the issue upon the oppressors and forcing them to experience powerful emotions – the pangs of conscience and consciousness – which might lead ultimately to political change.
As we enter the climax of his story, Smith describes not only what happens but how it gets transmitted to subsequent generations, discussing what events were captured by cameras (and in some cases, from what angles) and describing which are preserved in archives, which have been subject to competing interpretations, and which have been restaged and commerated through paintings, video dramas, stage plays, songs, and prose. Such descriptions look forward to our own time when something isn’t real until it has been transmitted through all available media channels:
“Fisi, in the pictures, stands back, his face sullen. In that particular frame of scenes, one can see some of the spectators going away. It was time for lunch and they had become hungry; they had no idea that they were going to miss the greatest atrocity in history, about which a thousand and more grand operas would be written.”
Smith’s writings, thus, anticipate our present transmedia moment and at the same time, offer a critical perspective on how stories flow across media. His own background as an expert on psychological warfare and as an adviser to the intelligence community allows him to anticipate how the spread of information can be manipulated by governments or shaped by dissent movements. In that sense, his references to alternative media presentation of his fictional events represents not simply a formal acknowlegement of the intertextual connections across all of his works but also as a critique of convergence, one written almost fifty years ago.
We might read Smith’s fiction as a letter sent from his generation to ours. Too bad so few of us are reading his remarkable stories. Check them out.
To learn more about this remarkable writer, read Karen L. Helleckson’s The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith.