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.
[Someone on the net (in Japan?) typed this excerpt from "A Planet Called Shayol," so I copied it and am pasting it in here. The story picks up when Mercer has been lying on the plain with the other prisoners, suffering the pains and mutations of the dromozoa, for several days. The cow-man who ministers to the prisoners is about to give him his first shot of super-condamine. This isn't for the squeamish.]
[B'dikkat] knew Mercer. "Hello, fellow. Now you can have the fun. It would have killed you in the cabin. Do you have anything for me?"
Mercer stammered, not knowing what B'dikkat meant, and
the two-nosed man answered for him, "I think he has a nice baby head, but it isn't big enough for you to take yet."
Mercer never noticed the needle touch his arm.
B'dikkat had turned to the next knot of people when the super-condamine hit Mercer.
He tried to run after B'dikkat, to hug the lead spacesuit, to tell B'dikkat that he loved him. He stumbled and fell, but it did not hurt.
The many-bodied girl lay near him. Mercer spoke to her.
"Isn't it wonderful? You're beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I'm so happy to be here."
The woman covered with growing hands came and sat beside them. She radiated warmth and good fellowship. Mercer thought that she looked very distinguished and charming. He struggled out of his clothes. It was foolish and snobbish to wear clothing when none of these nice people did.
The two women babbled and crooned at him.
With one corner of his mind he knew that they were saying nothing, just expressing the euphoria of a drug so powerful that the known universe had forbidden it. With most of his mind he was happy. He wondered how anyone could have the good luck to visit a planet as nice as this. He tried to tell the Lady Da, but the words weren't quite straight.
A painful stab hit him in the abdomen. The drug went after the pain and swallowed it. It was like the cap in the hospital, only a thousand times better. The pain was gone, though it had been crippling the first time.
He forced himself to be deliberate. He rammed his mind into focus and said to the two ladies who lay pinkly nude beside him in the desert, "That was a good bite. Maybe I will grow another head. That would make B'dikkat happy!"
The Lady Da forced the foremost of her bodies in an upright position. Said she, "I'm strong, too. I can talk. Remember, man, remember. People never live forever. We can die, too, we can die like real people. I do so believe in death!"
Mercer smiled at her through his happiness.
"Of course you can. But isn't this nice..."
With this he felt his lips thicken and his mind go slack. He was wide awake, but he did not feel like doing anything. In that beautiful place, among all those companionable and attractive people, he sat and smiled.
B'dikkat was sterilizing his knives.
Mercer wondered how long the super-condamine had lasted him. He endured the ministrations of the dromozoa without screams or movement. The agonies of nerves and itching of skin were phenomena which happened somewhere near
him, but meant nothing. He watched his own body with remote, casual interest. The Lady Da and the hand-covered woman stayed near him. After a long time the half-man dragged himself over to the group with his powerful arms. Having arrived he blinked sleepily and friendlily at them, and lapsed back into the restful stupor from which he had emerged. Mercer saw the sun rise on occasion, closed his eyes briefly, and opened them to see stars shining. Time had no meaning. The dromozoa fed him in their mysterious way; the drug canceled out his needs for cycles of the body.
At last he noticed a return of the inwardness of pain.
The pains themselves had not changed; he had.
He knew all the events which could take place on Shayol. He
remembered them well from his happy period. Formerly he had noticed them--now he felt them.
He tried to ask the Lady Da how long they had had the drug, and how much longer they would have to wait before they had it again. She smiled at him with benign, remote happiness;
apparently her many torsos, stretched out along the ground, had a greater capacity for retaining the drug than did his body. She meant him well, but was in no condition for articulate speech.
The half-man lay on the ground, arteries pulsating prettily behind the half-transparent film which protected his abdominal cavity.
Mercer squeezed the man's shoulder.
The half-man woke, recognized Mercer and gave him a healthily sleepy grin.
"'A good morrow to you, my boy.' That's out of a play. Did you ever see a play?"
"You mean a game with cards?"
"No," said the half-man, "a sort of eye-machine with real people doing the figures."
"I never saw that," said Mercer, "but I--"
"But you want to ask me when B'dikkat is going to come back with the needle."
"Yes," said Mercer, a little ashamed of his obviousness.
"Soon," said the half-man. "That's why I think of plays. We all know what is going to happen. We all know when it is going to happen. We all know what the dummies will do--" he gestured at the hummocks in which the decorticated men were cradled--"and we all know what the new people will ask. But we never know how long a scene is going to take."
"What's a 'scene'?" asked Mercer. "Is that the name for the
The half-man laughed with something close to real humor. "No, no, no. You've got the lovelies on the brain. A
scene is just a part of a play. I mean we know the order in which things happen, but we have no clocks and nobody cares enough to count days or to make calendars and there's not much climate here, so none of us know how long anything takes. The pain seems short and the pleasure
seems long. I'm inclined to think that they are about two Earth-weeks each."
Mercer did not know what an "Earth-week" was, since he had not been a well-read man before his conviction, but he got nothing more from the half-man at that time. The half-man received a dromozootic implant, turned red in the face, shouted senselessly at Mercer, "Take it out, you fool! Take it out of me!"
When Mercer looked on helplessly, the half-man twisted over on his side, his pink dusty back turned to Mercer, and wept hoarsely and quietly to himself.
Mercer himself could not tell how long it was before B'dikkat came back. It might have been several days. It might have been several months.
Once again B'dikkat moved among them like a father; once again they clustered like children. This time B'dikkat smiled pleasantly at the little head which had grown out of Mercer's thigh--a sleeping child's head, covered with light hair on top and with dainty eyebrows over the resting eyes. Mercer got the blissful needle.
When B'dikkat cut the head from Mercer's thigh, he felt the knife grinding against the cartilage which held the head
to his own body. He saw the child-face grimace
as the head was cut; he felt the far, cool flash of unimportant pain, as B'dikkat dabbed the wound with a corrosive antiseptic which stopped all bleeding immediately.
The next time it was two legs growing from his chest.
Then there had been another head beside his own.
Or was that after the torso and legs, waist to toe-tips, of the little girl which had grown from his side?
He forgot the order.
He did not count time.
Lady Da smiled at him often, but there was no love in this place. She had lost the extra torsos. In between teratologies, she was a pretty and shapely woman; but the nicest thing about their relationship was her whisper to him, repeated some thousands of times, repeated with smiles and hope, "People never live forever."
She found this immensely comforting, even though Mercer did not make much sense out of it.
Thus events occurred, and victims changed in appearance, and new ones arrived. Sometimes B'dikkat took the new ones, resting in the everlasting sleep of their burned-out brains, in a ground-truck to be added to other herds. The bodies in the truck threshed and bawled without human speech when the dromozoa struck them.
Finally, Mercer did manage to follow B'dikkat to the door of the cabin. He had to fight the bliss of super-condamine to do it. Only the memory of previous hurt, bewilderment and perplexity made him sure that if he did not ask B'dikkat when he, Mercer, was happy, the answer would no longer be available when he needed it. Fighting pleasure itself,
he begged B'dikkat to check the records and to tell him how long he had been there.
B'dikkat grudgingly agreed, but he did not come out of the doorway. He spoke through the public address box built into the cabin, and his gigantic voice roared out over the empty plain, so that the pink herd of talking people stirred gently in their happiness and wondered what their friend B'dikkat might be wanting to tell them. When he said it, they thought it exceedingly profound, though none of them understood it, since it was simply the amount of time that Mercer had been on Shayol:
"Standard years--eighty-four years, seven months, three days, two hours, eleven and one half minutes. Good luck, fellow."
Mercer turned away.
The secret little corner of his mind, which stayed sane through happiness and pain, made him wonder about B'dikkat. What persuaded the cow-man to remain on Shayol? What kept him happy without super-condamine? Was B'dikkat a crazy slave to his own duty or was he a man who had hopes of going back to his own planet some day, surrounded by a family of little cow-people resembling himself? Mercer, despite his happiness, wept a little at the strange fate of B'dikkat. His own fate he accepted.
He remembered the last time he had eaten--actual eggs from an actual pan. The dromozoa kept him alive, but he did not know how they did it.
He staggered back to the group. The Lady Da, naked in the dusty plain, waved a hospitable hand and showed that there was a place for him to sit beside her. There were unclaimed square miles of seating space around them, but he appreciated the kindliness of her gesture none the less.
The years, if they were years, went by. The land of Shayol did not change.
Sometimes the bubbling sound of geysers came faintly across the plain to the herd of men; those who could talk declared it to be the breathing of Captain Alvarez [the giant foot --ed.]. There was night and day, but no setting of crops, no change of season, no generations of men. Time stood still for these people, and their load of pleasure was so commingled with the shocks and pains of the dromozoa that the words of the Lady Da took on very remote meaning.
"People never live forever."
Her statement was a hope, not a truth in which they could believe. They did not have the wit to follow the stars in their
courses, to exchange names with each other, to harvest the experience of each for the wisdom of all. There was no dream of escape for these people. Though they saw the old-style chemical rockets lift up from the field beyond B'dikkat's cabin, they did not make plans to hide among the frozen crop of transmuted flesh.
Far long ago, some other prisoner than one of these had tried to write a letter. His handwriting was on a rock. Mercer read it, and so had a few of the others, but they could not tell which man had done it. Nor did they care.
The letter, scraped on stone, had been a message home. They could still read the opening: "Once, I was like you, stepping out of my window at the end of day, and letting the winds blow me gently toward the place I lived in. Once, like you, I had one head, two hands, ten fingers on my hands. The front part of my head was called a face, and I could talk with it. Now I can only write, and that only when I get out of pain. Once, like you, I ate foods, drank liquid, had a name. I cannot remember the name I had. You can stand up, you who get this letter. I cannot even stand up. I just wait for the lights to put their food in me molecule by molecule, and take it out again. Don't think that I am punished any more. This place is not a punishment. It is something else."