A Tunnel in the Sky

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Cordwainer Smith

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted July 27, 2000, with later edits

This is the most frequently used pseudonym of Dr. Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, the son of a US diplomat. He was born in Milwaukee—his father wanted to be sure he would be eligible for the presidency—but spent most of his youth in China. He was god-son to Sun Yat-sen, who gave him the name Lin Bah Loh (Forest of Incandescent Bliss). He was educated in China, Japan, and Europe, and became expert in psychoanalysis and "brainwashing" techniques. In 1948 he wrote Psychological Warfare, still considered an important text on the subject. Serving with the Army Intelligence Corps during World War 2, he played an active role in propping up the regime of Chiang Kai-shek before the communist takeover. Later he served as a military advisor in Korea and British Malaya—but not Vietnam, as he was opposed to US involvement there—and for a time was an advisor to President Kennedy.

Something my research unearthed—which is likely apocryphal—was his claim of his proudest accomplishment in Korea, the orchestration of the surrender of Chinese troops who normally felt it dishonorable to give up their weapons. Through leaflets air-dropped behind their lines the Chinese were persuaded to come forward, their arms over their heads, chanting the phrases "honor," "duty," and "humanity," which recited in the proper order sounded like "I surrender" in English.

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His first SF tale, "War No. 81-Q," was written at the age of 15 for a high school journal. In the late '40s he wrote two non-SF novels under the pseudonym Felix C. Forrest and one as Carmichael Smith. After 1950 he would write SF exclusively, all under the name of Cordwainer Smith. Almost all of his SF, including his first story, is part of a series known collectively as the "Instrumentality of Mankind," which covers several millenia of man's future both on Earth and in the exploration of space. The style of the stories ranged from darkly serious to highly satiric and some incorporated intricate Chinese narrative techniques. As in Heinlein's Future History, CS's saga was not written or published in chronological order, and judging from meticulous notebooks he maintained there were several stories never written. Critic and anthologist J. J. Pierce, utilizing the stories' internal evidence, has listed them in what he feels is the most logical sequence, and includes this list at the beginning of The Best of Cordwainer Smith, published in 1975. Norstrilia, his only SF novel and the climactic story of this sequence, was not published in complete form until nine years after his death, but its two major parts had been previously printed in various venues under several different names. The first half was printed in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1964 under the title "The Boy Who Bought Old Earth" but has also seen print in book form as The Planet Buyer; the concluding half appeared the same year in Worlds of If as "The Store of Heart's Desire," but is also known as The Underpeople. Along with this novel, all of CS's SF work can be found in three separate collections; the previously mentioned The Best of Cordwainer Smith, The Instrumentality of Mankind, and Quest of the Three Worlds. Later all of his Instrumentality stories (excluding Norstrilia) were published as The Rediscovery of Man.

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In the future Earth of Smith's saga almost all civiliziation is destroyed in a series of devastating wars. The last of the True Men huddle at the core of fortified cities, fearful of the beasts, the Unforgiven, and the "manshonyaggers" roaming outside. CS only hints at the possible identity of those last two sets of creatures, but perhaps the Unforgiven are either humans mutated by excessive radiation or products of genetic engineering, and manshonyaggers - possibly derived from the German menschenjager (hunter of men) - are intelligent killing machines left over from the wars. A surviving family of German descent (and Nazi affiliation), the Vomacts, are revived from suspended animation. They form the ruling body of the Instrumentality which generates a new vitality in humankind. Civilization is restored, cities are rebuilt, and the Second Age of Space begins. "Scanners Live in Vain," considered to be the first major story of the sequence, appeared - without payment to CS - in a very obscure journal, Fantasy Book, in 1950, nearly five years after it had been written and then rejected by every other SF periodical to which Smith submitted it. It is fortunate this story was subsequently anthologized in two separate books some years later. Otherwise this may have been the only glimpse we would ever have of Smith's genius.

CS is arguably the most original and innovative voice in the history of SF. Never before, or since, has anyone approached the genre with quite the same perspective or sensibilities. His admiration for Oriental customs and traditions infuses his later work with a distinctive lyrical quality, and his deep religious convictions are evident in many stories as well, most especially in the body of the Instrumentality itself. In the Episcopalian faith in which CS was raised the priest performing the sacraments is considered the "instrumentality" of God. The Code of the Scanners from "Scanners Live in Vain," as well as the duties of the "pin-lighters" and "Go-Captains" of later stories have close referants in religious ritual.

Scanners are humans who have been cybernetically altered to withstand the harsh realities of space travel. All of their senses have been electronically altered in order for them to better analyze and interpret the vast array of information concerning conditions of space around their ship in the "up and out." When not on duty they can go "under the wire" to "cranch" - returning to the world of normal human senses and emotions. The main character is Scanner Martel, who is married, and increasingly aware of the sacrifices he has made for his profession. In spite of his wife's objections, he cranches as often as possible even though he is aware of the dangers this imposes on his health. Due to changing technologies, it is learned that the services of the scanners may no longer be required, a situation the Guild of Scanners is not willing to tolerate. Martel, however, welcomes this opportunity to return to the normality of his former life on Earth, and he risks both his reputation and his life to defend the implementation of this new technology.

When this story was reprinted in two different anthologies several years after its initial appearance CS received many inquiries as to any further stories he had to tell concerning his future world. Although he had almost given up hope of any further interest in his work, he had already outlined many other stories and his next publication came in 1955 with "The Game of Rat and Dragon," which detailed the exploits of the pin-lighters, the next generation of space-farers that followed the Scanners. Even further changing technologies would bring the Go-Captains and the process of "planoforming," virtually instantaneous travel through the light-years of space. Stories that highlight these adventures also include "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul," "The Burning of the Brain," and "Golden the Ship Was - Oh! Oh! Oh!"

Much of CS's work would also concentrate on the workings of the Instrumentality, both on Old Earth and on its many colony worlds. The Instrumentality was more than just a governing body, but rather they perceived themselves to be shapers of the true destiny of mankind. They focused their efforts on nurturing technologies that improved the quality of life for humanity. These included the creation of the "underpeople," genetically altered animals designed to perform all of the physically laborious work necessary to keep any civilization intact. Also, all disease and infirmity had been eradicated, enabling humans to concentrate their time and energies in the pursuit of knowledge as well as various recreations. On the planet of Old North Australia - shortened to Norstrilia by its inhabitants - a discovery was made of a mutated virus which was developed into the santaclara drug (also known as stroon) which granted humanity the boon of near-immortality. Rather than the utopia the Instrumentality had envisioned, degeneration of societal values ensued, including the exploitation and oppression of the underpeople and the supression of the Old Strong Religion. But then would come the legend of the martyrdom of the dog-girl D'joan, as well as the efforts of the Lord Jestocost and the Lady Alice More, which would generate the Rediscovery of Man - bringing freedom, risk, and uncertainty back to humanity.

CS never completed his epic series of tales but did include many hints as to the glories that followed the Rediscovery of Man and the Holy Insurgency. After centuries of the benevolent rule of the Instrumentality, humanity had become stagnant, adrift in a bland utopia free of the fear of death, disease, or the burden of labor, but also ignorant of hope and freedom. The plight of the underpeople parallels our society's civil rights struggles, and in the end it would be these animal-derived workers, as well as robots, who would teach humans the meaning of humanity and religion. Lord Jestocost, a hereditary member of the Instrumentality, would be inspired by the martyrdom of D'joan, as recounted in the short story "The Dead Lady of Clown Town." His efforts would be aided by the Lady Alice More - whose tale was revealed in "Under Old Earth" - and he would also receive insight from another underperson, the cat-derived C'mell in "The Ballad of Lost C'mell." Together, they would orchestrate the Rediscovery of Man, reintroducing disease and the possibility of death, but also spirituality and free will. The exhiliration of this new-found freedom was brilliantly realized in the exploits of the lovers Paul and Virginia in "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard."

The climax of CS's work would be the only novel length story in the sequence, Norstrilia. Much of the wealth of the known universe was derived from the manufacture of the santaclara drug, or stroon, which afforded the user exceptionally long life. Norstrilia was the only source of this drug, which had been strictly controlled by the Instrumentality. No one but native Norstrilians and members of the Instrumentality were allowed to live beyond 400 years. The hero of the novel is Rod McBan, heir to the vast fortunes of the Station of Doom, his family's homestead. Rod is unique among Norstrilians, lacking the telepathic abilities of hiering and spieking, and it amazes everyone that he was not "culled" following the ritual trial at puberty in the Garden of Death. Rod had been forced to live through four separate childhoods, from infancy to age sixteen each time, in an effort to develop this telepathic ability valued so highly by the Nortsrilians. Although unable to mind-spiek and hier in the normal manner of others, Rod does have the ability to transmit his thoughts with such a force as to short circuit everyone else's telepathic abilities if they are unfortunate enough to be near him. The Lord Redlady, the Instrumentality's representative at Rod's final trial, deems his talent to be one that deserves further study, and prevails on the other judges to spare Rod's life.

There are others, though, who still wish his death, including a rival from his earliest childhood who is allergic to stroon and thus unable to take advantage of the long life it offers. In his despair Rod consults his computer - the only personal computer left on the planet - as to his options. The computer convinces him to authorize certain financial transactions which overnight parlays Rod's family fortune in such a way as to make him not only the richest man on Nortstrilia, but the owner of Old Earth as well. Rod is persuaded to travel to Earth to survey his new domain and also to seek a bride. His adventures bring him into contact with all the forces working together and against each other to bring about the Rediscovery of Man and the liberation of the underpeople. He encounters Lord Jestocost and C'mell in the miles-high tower that is Earthport on the island of Meeya Meefla, and also travels deep into the bowels of Under-Earth to meet E'telekeli, the legendary bird-derived religious leader of the oppressed animal-peoples. In the end, Rod abandons his claims on Earth and returns to his home and his childhood love on Norstrilia, but he and all of humanity are forever changed by what has transpired.

Throughout all of CS's work there is a sense of unfulfilled anticipation. One longs for further insights into the majesty that followed the Rediscovery of Man, when humanity and underpeople worked toward a common destiny, but such was not to be. In such a limited amount of works, Smith enlightened us with glimpses of myths in the making, but it is up to us to complete the vision.

"Smith's universe remains infinitely greater than our knowledge of it...[it] will always retain its enigmas. But that is part of its appeal. In reading his stories, we are caught up in experiences as real as life itself - and just as mysterious." - [J. J. Pierce, from his introduction to The Best of Cordwainer Smith]

Related Links:
cordwainer-smith.com - maintained by his daughter, Rosana Hart
Smith's Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com
Smith's page at Alpha Ralpha Boulevard - a site named for the CS story


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July 11, 1913
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

August 6, 1966

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