“The Lords of the Instrumentality who are here on Fomalhaut III. There is the Lord Femtiosex, who is just and without pity ... There is the Lady Goroke ... who has shown kindnesses to underpeople, as long as the kindnesses were lawful ones. And there is the Lady Arabella Underwood, whose justice no man can understand.”
-- The Dead Lady of Clown Town,
The science-fiction writings of Cordwainer Smith consist of some twenty-odd short stories and two novels, which chart the history of an evolving civilisation over some fifteen thousand years. The history is internally consistent, and each story contributes to a coherent picture of the technological, social and spiritual development of the future described.
In real life, Smith was Dr Paul Linebarger, Professor in Asiatic Studies at Johns Hopkins university and colonel in US military intelligence, accomplished linguist and foreign policy adviser to the state department. His writing style, partly inspired by Chinese narrative techniques, more closely resembles poetry than the conventional dry prose of science-fiction, and his stories are dense with literary and historical references and more or less complex linguistic puns. Running through the entire work is a consistent morality and outlook, whose principal themes recur again and again in stories often written many years apart.
The broad outlines of Smith's future civilisation can be briefly sketched. Travel between the stars and the consequent expansion of human culture through the universe is made possible by the invention of 'planoforming' ships that travel faster than light, and by the development of novel systems to protect their passengers and crew against the dangers of space. In this new interstellar culture, true humans live lives of privileged ease, while work is done by robots and by 'underpeople', animals genetically modified to have near-human intelligence and form. Over it all presides the Instrumentality, a benign but absolute dictatorship composed of a ruling nobility who use their technological and telepathic powers to maintain the status quo and to dispense an abstract and dispassionate justice. It is against this background that the principal themes of Smith's stories – love, courage, cruelty, hope, innocence, belief – are played out.
Smith's primary purpose in writing his stories seems to have been to entertain himself and a select few appreciative readers. He says as much in an epilogue published in the collection Space Lords. This being the case, he was free to indulge himself by seeding his writings with complex literary and linguistic jokes, and by concentrating on his own favourite subjects.
An obvious example is the special place reserved for cats in his work. The description of the 'partners' that help the pinlighters protect planoforming ships in The game of rat and dragon is a virtual eulogy to all things feline. In The ballad of lost C'mell, C'mell is a cat-derived underperson (named for Smith's own cat, Melanie) who forms the central pivot on which the programme of moral growth for his future society turns. Griselda, in Down to a Sunless Sea, embodies the grace and innocence of Xanadu as much as her human counterparts, Madu and Lari.
It is not sheer self-indulgence that motivates Smith to give place to cats in his work. Throughout the stories, animals and underpeople represent qualities which the wise, dispassionate, nearly immortal humans of the Instrumentality lack. Cats in particular are symbolic of grace and affection, while dogs stand for loyalty and devotion. By adopting the genre of science fiction and inventing the device of underpeople created from animals, Smith could use the traits of the different animal species as symbolic tokens in his moral and metaphysical program.
The underpeople exist in Smith's works as moral guides to their human masters. The fact that they are not seen as such by their contemporaries indicates the moral sterility of civilisation under the Instrumentality. It is a bull-derived underperson, B'dikkat, who recalls the Empire to its moral duty in A planet named Shayol:
“You understand people. I only obey them. But this I will not obey.”
-- A planet named Shayol,
The despised D'alma in Quest of the Three Worlds, is both wiser and better than her human masters. In The Dead Lady of Clown Town, the forbearance of the underpeople of the Brown and Yellow Corridor with respect to the human woman Elaine contrasts with the casual manner in which they would be – and are – exterminated by the true men if they set foot outside. D'joan, in the same story, is more than a match both intellectually and morally for Lord Femtiosex.
More seriously still, the true humans who reject the underpeople reject not only their moral responsibilities, but even something of their own humanity. Smith's message is that humanity requires not only the intelligence and rigid justice of the true men but also the qualities of the underpeople – the grace and affection displayed by the cats and cat-derived underpeople (C'mell, Griselda), the loyalty and wisdom of the dog people (D'joan, D'alma), the patience of the turtles (T'ruth), and the unswerving bovine sense of right and wrong of the bull-man B'dikkat. Even the brief, squalid and chaotic lives of the underpeople have a dignity and a richness – in terms of the possibility of love and hope – which the ordered near-immortality of the true humans lacks. A crucial element of the Rediscovery of Man is the reduction of the human lifespan to something closer to that of the underpeople, so that true humans may live as intensely as their animal-derived fellow citizens.
The underpeople stand for natural justice, a justice which thinks and feels, where the Instrumentality represents an absolute, impartial blind justice. While Smith recognises the value of impartiality, he also recognises one of its possible consequences. It is this that forms the theme of the next section.
Cruelty is a key theme in Smith's work, and is to be understood in a very special sense. Cruelty for Smith is not sadism but expediency. It is not enjoyment of the pain of others, but rather a kind of deliberate insensitivity to their pain, motivated often by a code of justice as high-minded as it is rigid and bureaucratic. Atrocities are the product not of viciousness, but of good intentions and high ideals that make no allowance for humanity and the rights of the individual.
Cruelty is, above all, the prerogative of the Lords of the Instrumentality. Two Lords, Jestocost in The Ballad of Lost C'mell and Crudelta in Drunkboat, even receive the word as a proper name. Jestocost – 'cruelty' in Russian – is thus named by his mother to atone for the atrocity committed by Femtiosex in The Dead Lady of Clown Town, but Crudelta – 'cruelty' in Italian – is cruel himself, in the sense in which Smith understands it. In the interests of a scientific experiment, Crudelta plays with the lives of two people, fatally injuring the one to induce the necessary rage in the other that will enable him to leap through space-3 to her side.
Crudelta's cruelty goes unpunished because this kind of cruelty is practically the essence of the Instrumentality. Rather than punishing him, his fellow Lords condemn him to:
“... long life, great responsibility, immense rewards and the fatigue of being his own difficult and complicated self.”
Smith constantly reminds us that the Instrumentality exists to maintain the status quo. It is a utilitarian organisation, concerned only with the greatest good for the greatest number which, in this case, does not include robots or underpeople.
“We know what the Lords Femtiosex and Limanao thought they were doing. They were maintaining established order.”
-- The Dead Lady of Clown Town,
The execution of the underpeople and the burning of D'joan is justified by this need to maintain stability. Even Femtiosex's invasion of D'joan's mind – 'the cruellest step of all' – as she burns at the stake, so that she loses her composure and howls out her pain is intended only to transmit a lesson to the spectators. Femtiosex's judgement and that of the Instrumentality is, as ever, '... just and without pity ...'. His cruelty is disinterested, expedient.
“I am not a bad man, little dog-girl, but you are a bad animal and we must make an example of you. Do you understand that?”
-- The Dead Lady of Clown Town,
Individual happiness is always sacrificed to the general good, as in the case of the psionic used against Raumsog's empire:
“... a poor crazy little girl who wept, and whom the Lords of the Instrumentality had cruelly refused to heal because her talents were better in unshielded form ...”
-- Golden the ship was – oh! oh! oh!,
or Rambo and Elizabeth, Crudelta's subjects in Drunkboat.
Despite this, Smith never presents the Instrumentality as tyrannical. It is merely pragmatic, with a well-defined and not unworthy mandate.
“Watch, but do not govern; stop war, but do not wage it; protect, but do not control; and first, survive!”
The irony and the tragedy – the imbalance at the heart of the Instrumentality – is that in the pursuit of these goals, any step that the Lords of the Instrumentality choose to take can be justified.
There are some genuine tyrants in Smith's work and they too can be cruel, but once again only from the best intentions. Kuat, in Down to a Sunless Sea, is probably the most evil person in Smith's writings, but even he believes that he is being kind when he cripples Lari. Kuraf, in Quest of the Three Worlds, is a relatively harmless degenerate concerned only with his own pleasure but the virtuous and idealistic Wedder, who overthrows him, puts his people:
“... through a dozen torments for a Utopia which never quite comes true.”
-- Quest of the Three Worlds,
What Smith evidently feared was the cruelty of systems or ideologies rather than of individuals. The order that the Instrumentality maintains is seen as a good, but it is not a sufficient good to justify the abuses it inflicts. Moreover, it is a good that excludes many of those who have a right to it – the underpeople, who in their ability to feel and to love, are more fully human than the true humans who alone have rights under the Instrumentality of Man. For human civilisation to attain its full moral growth, this right must be recognised, and the abstract justice of the Instrumentality replaced by something more compassionate.
With the loss of Smith's notebooks, it sometimes becomes difficult to work out the order in which the different stories should be fitted together. The recognised canon of Instrumentality stories contains at least one that should not be there at all. This is The Colonel Came Back from Nothing-at-All, and it should be eliminated because it is one of the rare occasions in which Smith falls into a gross anachronism. The doctors attempting to heal Colonel Harkening make use of pinlighter's helmets – but the technique of pinlighting only evolved after the successful development of planoforming, the very technology which was being tested by Harkening. It is slightly as if Wilbur Wright, injured in a test flight of the Wright Flyer, should be taken to hospital by helicopter. The story can only have been written – it was never apparently published before being collected into the anthology The Instrumentality of Mankind – before Smith had worked out the full and consistent details of his future history. The events of the story are never referred to by any other story (the true Instrumentality stories are full of cross-references) and Smith even re-uses the names of the doctors – Vomact, Grosbeck, Timofeyev – and the key situation in Drunkboat, suggesting that he had decided to remove The colonel came back from the canon.
In another sense, however, The colonel came back is a typical Smith story in that it contains one of his prototypical figures, the innocent girl-child. Liana, the telepath who heals the colonel, is the first occurrence of a type which comes to dominate the most crucial sequences of Smith's writings:
“... scarcely more than twelve. She was a little girl with a long, lean face, a soft, mobile mouth, quick gray-green eyes, a mop of tan hair that fell over her shoulders. She had expressive, tapering hands. She showed no shock at all at the sight of the naked man lost in the depths of his insanity.”
-- The Colonel Came Back from Nothing-at-All,
She is a child who is at once wise and innocent, a healer who preaches a message of spiritual love, a pre-adolescent who nonetheless has about her the very faintest aura of sexuality. Liana is also, significantly, a Quaker, something that will be discussed at greater length in the next section.
The classic little-girl figures in Smith's work are of course D'joan (The Dead Lady of Clown Town) and T'ruth (Quest of the Three Worlds). Both of these are innocents who contain the wisdom of centuries – the significantly-named T'ruth has the memories of the witch-woman the Hechizera of Gonfalon, D'joan has the combined memories of Elaine and the Hunter and the Lady Panc Ashash and more besides. For Smith, innocence and ignorance are by no means synonymous. Both are spiritual healers – T'ruth heals Casher O'Neill, while D'joan's ministry is to an entire culture. Both face martyrdom, or the threat of martyrdom. T'ruth's relationship with Casher includes a mischievous and ambiguous sexual element that is at odds with her substantive age, while D'joan is present, if not aware, while Elaine and the Hunter make love, and the description of her dead body after her martyrdom also explicitly calls attention to her physical sexual characteristics.
The same pattern is repeated with other female characters in Smith's stories. Veesey in Think blue, count two is also a classic girl-child; precociously sexual in her relations with Trece, threatened with an unspeakable martyrdom by Talatashar, finally victorious through her innocence and love. She is less selfless than T'ruth or D'joan, but otherwise she fits the pattern well. Genevieve, in Quest of the Three Worlds, is physically and emotionally mature, but when she links telepathically with Casher O'Neill her thoughts are:
“... brilliant, clean, bright, innocent ...”
-- Quest of the Three Worlds,
Even C'mell, whose profession of girlygirl makes her something between a geisha and a courtesan, is characterised by innocence and love (for her people and for Jestocost) and by her dedication to an ideal, the healing of a civilisation. She too risks punishment – which for an underperson can only be death – in order to achieve her goal.
Perhaps the most interesting figure is Madu, in Down to a Sunless Sea. Like her sisters in Smith's other writings, she is a threatened innocent, but unlike them what is threatened is not her life but rather her innocence itself. For D'joan, martyrdom is a fulfilment that makes her mission possible; Veesey's innocence is unassailable, and allows her to redeem herself and her companions (with the help of the wisdom of Tiga-Belas/Sh'san). But Madu's innocence is vulnerable, and it is this that makes Down to a Sunless Sea genuinely tragic; Kemal and E'duard's victory over Kuat is achieved, but at an immense cost:
“Lord Kemal would be tortured for more than two centuries by a question. When did the ends justify the means? When was the law absolute? He saw in his mind's eye Griselda bounding over dunes and plains – a Madu innocent as dawn – Lari dancing under a sunless moon.”
-- Down to a Sunless Sea,
Down to a Sunless Sea was completed after Smith's death by his widow, and it is interesting to speculate how much Madu owes to Genevieve Linebarger. Certainly there appears to be a new understanding at work, an understanding that death is not the worst that we have to fear and that even the high ideals of the reformed Empire cannot be achieved without cost. It is this that makes Madu perhaps the most compelling and real of Smith's heroines, and her story the most moving.
Smith is not overly concerned with male children. The murder of the boy Johnny by Benjacomin Bozart in Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons is almost incidental and arouses no strong emotions in either the author or the reader. In A planet named Shayol, Smith reiterates his belief that cruelty to children is the one unpardonable sin:
“This is a crime worse than any crime we have committed! And the Empire has done it.”
-- A planet named Shayol,
but the children themselves (who are of both sexes) are incapable of inspiring pity because they have no characters. The idiot boy whom Casher O'Neill heals in Quest of the Three Worlds comes perhaps the closest to having an identity of his own, but his identity begins only after an act of cruelty has already been perpetrated against him. Before Casher heals him, he can have only the vaguest and most abstract kind of innocence because he is an idiot, and a rather unappealing one at that.
Innocence, for Smith, also requires intelligence; to arouse feeling, they must be like Genevieve:
“... so intelligent that she knew there was nothing, nothing to be done about her fate.”
-- Quest of the Three Worlds,
Like the emotions of the underpeople, innocence and love are in opposition to the abstract and impartial justice of the Instrumentality. The redemption of human culture requires that these opposites should be reconciled, and a new Utopia be constructed based not on materialism and order, but on a living justice which includes equal parts of each. This is Smith's programme in his own words:
“We today know that variety, flexibility, danger and the seasoning of a little hate can make life and love bloom as they never bloomed before; we know it is better to live with the complications of thirteen thousand old languages resurrected from the dead ancient past than with the cold blind-alley perfection of the Old Common Tongue.”
-- The Dead Lady of Clown Town,
It is this programme that Jestocost and C'mell set in motion; it is this that makes possible the new lords of the Instrumentality, like Kemal bin Permaiswairi. But for Smith something else is needed as well.
The Old Strong Religion
Christianity and science-fiction seldom mix. The scientific leanings of most writers predispose them also towards atheism, and the few attempts on the part of fundamentalist Christians such as Dilwyn Horvat to branch out into the genre are best avoided. Luckily for science-fiction, the requirement for imagination and creativity seems to ensure that those Christian writers such as C.S. Lewis who do make the genre their own are necessarily open-minded and of superior literary and intellectual ability.
Like Lewis, Cordwainer Smith was a committed Christian, but his injection of Christianity into his works is so unprogrammatic and discreet as to make even Lewis's relatively subtle writings look like the most blatant propaganda. He denied being a 'fussy sectarian', and in The Lady who sailed the Soul he has Lord Wait assign twenty-six thousand religious fanatics to be Helen America's cargo, on the grounds that they are less valuable than convicts.
He also acknowledges the existence of a moral code more basic than the Christian moral code:
“... I use the word 'evil' not only in this sense" (he held up the cross of the God Nailed High) "but in its sense of the basic violation of the rights of the living. I mean the right of an entity to exist, to exist on its own terms provided they do not violate the rights of others, to come to its own terms with life, and to make its own decisions." For a second time Lord Kemal Permaiswairi nodded in respect and agreement. "These are inalienable rights."”
-- Down to a Sunless Sea,
The moral rejuvenation of human civilisation which must come about by the granting of civil rights to the underpeople and by the Rediscovery of Man will have, for Smith, a religious element, but it is secondary to the basic freedoms to love and to learn and to enjoy justice and equal rights independent of any system of belief. Christianity comes not as a moral code, but as an enrichment of life in a society which has already arrived at a 'Christian' morality from first principles.
The embargo on religion under the Instrumentality means that Christianity has reverted to the form that it must have had in the early church. It is preserved among the underpeople as a secret cult, and communicated only by signs. While this is socially and historically plausible, it also seems likely that Smith preferred this kind of fundamental Christianity – fundamental not in the present-day sense of dogmatic or literalist, but in the sense of essential or basic – to the organized religions that followed it. Christianity, for Smith, is alive and personal and intimate; there are no priests or churches in his works and his form of Christianity has little need of them.
“We don't need a church for this, though I suppose there are still churches on some planets. What we need is a place to find ourselves, and be ourselves ...”
-- Quest of the Three Worlds,
As has already been mentioned, Liana in The colonel came back from Nothing-at-all is a 'Post-Soviet Eastern Orthodox Quaker'. The Quaker interpretation of Christianity with its absence of any priesthood to intercede between God and Man and its emphasis on the personal and basic aspects of worship and morality rather than an impersonal and hierarchical organization, is ideally suited to Smith's view of Christianity and his overall moral programme. No other Christian sects are mentioned by name (unless the Copt in the alluded-to but never written story of the Robot, the Rat and the Copt, is taken to be a member of the Coptic church, a church which was, incidentally, perhaps the earliest Christian church).
Christianity is often present but never intrusive in Smith's works. The martyrdom of D'joan is a crucifixion, and she is unmistakably a Christ-figure, but it is also more simply a retelling of the story of Jeanne d'Arc. Christian characters – T'ruth, E'duard, Liana, D'alma in Quest of the Three Worlds – may be presented as admirable examples, but there are also many non-Christians – Kemal, Jestocost, Tiga-Belas, the Hunter – who are equally wise or good or courageous. What Smith had in mind for the story of the Robot, the Rat and the Copt, which would have dealt with the rediscovery of the Trinity may never – perhaps fortunately – be known.
The Rediscovery of Man
The future history of Cordwainer Smith deals with a society which has denied a part of itself. The Instrumentality offers stability and an abstract and impartial justice, the santaclara drug offers virtual immortality to its users, but however desirable these things may be, they are not sufficient by themselves. True humanity also requires the qualities – love, courage, innocence, self-sacrifice, loyalty, faith – which are shown by the very people to whom the status of humanity is denied. For human civilisation to attain its true spiritual growth, the underpeople must be granted equal rights, not only in the name of an abstract justice but because the qualities that they have are those of which civilisation stands most in need. The question of civil rights for the underpeople may well have been a deliberate reflection of the civil rights movement in America at the time that Smith was writing, but it is also more than that. It is an assertion that in all societies at all times, human rights must be universal, both out of basic considerations of justice and for the health of the civilisation itself. A political or social system based merely on blind utilitarianism is inadequate; it must take account and even put first the individual and spiritual needs of its members.
The Best of Cordwainer Smith, Cordwainer Smith, Del Rey Books 1975, J.J. Pierce (ed).
Quest of the Three Worlds, Cordwainer Smith, HBJ Books 1978.
Space Lords, Cordwainer Smith, Del Rey Books 1979.
The Instrumentality of Mankind, Cordwainer Smith, Del Rey Books 1979, Frederik Pohl (ed).
Best Science Fiction of the Year: 1, Peacock Books 1976, Terry Carr (ed).