Thursday, 12 June 2008

Cordwainer Smith

From Hilaire Belloc's poems to the science fiction works of Cordwainer Smith. This is not entirely a non sequitur; both were strongly religious, and both wrote about aristocracies. But where Belloc's Peers are harmless eccentrics, Smith wrote about the Lords and Ladies of an"Instrumentality" using powers of life and death to shape human history.

Cordwainer Smith was an original, with a background among the most distinctive among 20th century SF authors. Born Paul MA Linebarger - see the biography - he worked variously as an academic, diplomat, and military expert in psychological warfare (of sufficient eminence to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery). I was interested to find yesterday confirmation of a story that appears in the preface to JJ Pierce's anthology The Best of Cordwainer Smith:

While in Korea, Linebarger masterminded the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops who considered it shameful to give up their arms. He drafted leaflets explaining how the soldiers could surrender by shouting the Chinese words for 'love', 'duty', 'humanity' and 'virtue' - words that happened, when pronounced in that order, to sound like "I surrender" in English. He considered this act the single most worthwhile thing he had done in his life. and confirm my untutored conclusion that these words in Mandarin come out as "ài zé rén dé". Neat.

This PsyOps experience comes across strongly in Linebarger's SF works: those in power achieve results through a combination of the deeply humane and the deeply cynical, often outright cruel (his Lords of the Instrumentality will mastermind the death of millions for a greater good, then erase the memory of the perpetrator and survivors so that they will feel no trauma). As the Arlington National Cemetery biography says, his works were also suffused with religious imagery from the very beginning, with the Christian allegory and the quasi-religious ritual of the Scanners in his first story, Scanners Live in Vain (no relation, incidentally, to Cronenberg). The same applies to his later The Dead Lady of Clown Town, in which a Joan of Arc figure brings redemption to the semi-animal Underpeople that feature in one segment of Smith's timeline. Painful redemption of some kind is a recurring theme such as in The Lady Who Sailed The Soul, whose heroine sacrifices her youth to rejoin her lover, or A Planet Named Shayol, a Boschian nightmare where political criminals atone with decades on a planet where parasites cause spare body parts to grow for organ harvesting.

Smith was a skilled exponent of the technique of planting linguistic fossils such as garbled placenames (Meeya Meefla, for instance, is Miami FL) to suggest a rich and mostly forgotten historical backstory. He also draws on techniques such as Chinese storytelling. The kinds of literary sources he used are exemplified in one of his most vivid stories, Drunkboat. It concerns a man who appears naked on the lawn of a hospital; the subject of an experiment, he has travelled interstellar space unaided, and has been driven temporarily insane by the experience. His name is Artyr Rambo, and his eventual account of what he saw in "space three" is surreal and poetic.

"I was a boat where all the lost spaceships lay ruined and still. Seahorses which were not real ran beside me. The summer months came and hammered down the sun. I went past archipelagoes of stars, where the delirious skies opened up for wanderers. I cried for me. I wept for man. I wanted to be the drunkboat sinking. I sank… I heard phosphorescence singing and tides that seemed like crazy cattle clawing their way out of the ocean, their hooves beating the reefs. You will not believe me, but I found Floridas wilder than this, where the flowers had human skins and eyes like big cats… I can’t forget the pride of unremembered flags, the arrogance of prisons which I suspected, the swimming of the businessmen!”

Although I assumed Rambo was named after the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, I only discovered recently that his words are an extended quotation from Rimbaud's Le Bateau ivre (The Drunken Boat) - it's depressing, if you happen to be a writer, to consider that Rimbaud came up with this powerful and assured imagery at just 17. There's an extended account of the story's origins in Karen Hellekson's The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith (judging by the Google Books preview, this is a book I want to find).

There are a number of analytical sites about: apart from the excellent run by Rosana Hart, one of his daughters, two essays are particularly enlightening: Cats, cruelty and children ("Idealism and morality in the Instrumentality of Mankind") and Christianity In the Science Fiction of "Cordwainer Smith" ( James B. Jordan, Mundum, No. 2 Winter 1992). Some of his stories are available online.

Addendum. See also The Jet-Propelled Couch.

Addendum 2 (March 2010): over at The Apothecary's Drawer, my old personal weblog, John Cowan just sent me some interesting further comment on language wordplay and allusions in Cordwainer Smith works. I'd mentioned how

Smith/Linebarger is a very interesting author linguistically, as his character and placenames reflect his wide experience in different languages. For instance, his Lords of the Instrumentality Sto Odin and Jestocost are transliterations of сто один (101) and жестокость (cruelty) in Russian. As shown by these tasters for the "A" and "R" sections in Anthony R Lewis' Concordance to Cordwainer Smith, his work abounds with this wordplay ... the Australian continent features the vast ruins of the Chinese city Aojou Nambien ("Ao Zhou" = "Australia" in Mandarin).

John also confirmed the "I surrender" transliteration, and sent me some further examples I wouldn't have spotted:

Indeed, aì zé rén dé, or 爱责仁德. Note also the numeric names like Panc Ashash (Sanskrit for 56), Femtiosex (Swedish for 56), and Tiga-belas (Malay/Indonesian for 13).

Quite by coincidence, a few days ago I ran into the Hebrew term B'dikat Hametz, and immediately thought of Smith's A Planet Named Shayol, where the bull-man guardian of a prison/punishment planet is called B'Dikkat. John's comment jogged me into a quick search for others (these days it's a lot easier to do cross-linguistic searches online). There's a Lord Crudelta in Drunkboat: "crudeltà" is Italian for barbarity/cruelty.
- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Nice post.

    I wish I remembered more about my father's process of writing science fiction, but I do distinctly remember when I was in high school and he told me about his writing based on Rimbaud's Bateau Ivre. He was quite gleeful about it.

    Rosana Linebarger Hart