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Strange Words has a nice essay on visionary science fiction this month, concentrating on the great Cordwainer Smith. "Scanners Live in Vain," written in 1948, is still mind-blowing in its depiction of a highly militaristic post-human society. Before the space program it wasn't unimaginable that outer space could be a place where travelers experienced great physical pain. Smith describes a caste of humans who go up into the vacuum called "habermen," mostly convicts and social misfits, who have their spinal cords cut and machines inserted to control motor and sensory functions. Their only means of perception is vision, which is unaffected by the Great Pain of Space, as it is called; otherwise their bodies are so much unfeeling meat. "Scanners" are volunteers who undergo the same surgery, but unlike the habermen, they are equipped with control boxes that allow them constantly to monitor readouts of their own heartbearts, adrenaline levels, and so forth, as well as those of other scanners. These elite space pilots live entirely through their eyes, except when "cranched," a procedure that temporarily restores hearing, taste, touch, and smell. They speak in a lofty, ritualistic language by means of lip reading, light flashing, and a "talking nail," an extended digit used for marking on a chalkboard; although they are completely disconnected from ordinary human experience, freaks really, they consider themselves highly rational supermen. The story concerns the discovery of a new form of space travel that will make Scanners obsolete, and their conspiracy to kill the inventor. In 1948 the idea of living a completely optical existence probably seemed a lot stranger than it does now. Click click click click...
Another unforgettable Smith story is "A Planet Called Shayol." On this prison world, nature metes out punishments worse than death: when released into the outdoors, the prisoner is immediately hit by a swarm of "dromozoa," a kind of flying one-celled organism that causes intense, crippling pain. Within hours the dromozoa-afflicted body begins growing "spare parts": a hand attached to your neck, say, or a string of baby heads coming out of your abdomen. One inmate turns into a giant foot, another has organs on the outside of his body, others have been voluntarily lobotomized and burrow into the dirt like crabs. And it gets worse: once a month, an attendant comes out and harvests the body parts for transplants and other surgical needs. To remove the parts, he administers extra doses of a powerful painkiller called super-condamine; fortunately for the prisoners, their attendant is kind and gives extra doses of the drug. The protagonist of the story spends decades (he's not sure how long), alternately blissed out on the drug or screaming in agony, while his body goes through every kind of obscene mutation. It's Dante for the space age, sure, but without the moral framework. In Smith's vision, Shayol only exists because it's in the backwater of a very large, very decadent bureaucratic system that goes for millennia without reform. There is no purpose for the punishment except meaningless cruelty. And I'll refrain from commenting on our own incarceration industry in the here and now.