Saturday, October 13, 2007

We the Underpeople

Anthology of six stories by Cordwainer Smith; the stories are "The Dead Lady of Clown Town", "Under Old Earth", "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons", "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard", "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell", and the novel(!) Norstrilia. (Since it is over 250 pages, I think it counts as a novel, not a novella.)

I found this because Elliot recommended it. For reference, he says in that post that his favorite Smith story is "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" and his second favorite is "Under Old Earth."

But first, a digression. Consider John C. Wright's discussion of his treatment of religion in the Chaos books. While reading them (twice!), I never approached the level of depth and generalization in his analysis (for example, his classification of the four paradigms and what they believe regarding knowledge and divinity). I don't think I would have ever said or thought that Amelia's paradigm was marked by its mystery, by the presence of unknowable things. I paid attention to how things got done, not how the book was written; I am not a student of writing. (Occasionally I cannot help noticing elements such as the abundance of paper and ink simile and metaphor in Alphabet of Thorn, but even then it me until my second read to notice.) The point is that I read books mostly for enjoyment and rarely detect the structures below the surface. (Or even the ones at the surface.) Would you expect a reader to notice all the things that Wright mentions in his explanation? I did not, for whatever that says about me.

This applies to Cordwainer Smith's anthology because I suspect there were such things under the surface that were, in fact, very important to the meaning of the story, and I fear that I did not see them.

I did enjoy "The Dead Lady of Clown Town": it has sympathetic characters and high emotions, although the plot, like many of these stories, seems to wander. (You can read Elliot's more detailed analysis here.) Norstrilia was the other one I really enjoyed, and is easier to describe despite being much longer: a young man buys and visits Earth and gets away alive. (Actually, the author tells you that much within the first few pages; maybe you are supposed to suspect that isn't really what it's about? I am not so cynical in this case.)

All of these stories are set in the same universe and most feature underpeople, genetically- (or otherwise) modified animals shaped more or less into humans who are used as servants, while "True People" are kept perfectly and inevitably happy by the mysterious Instrumentality. These stories are all also subtly or overtly horrifying. Hypnotism, telepathy and drugs are widely used to control people. Sub-par humans are drugged and laugh themselves to death as their brains melt. The underpeople who believe in the "sign of the Fish" and the "three forgotten ones" (let the reader understand) defend their secrets by inducing suicide, memory loss, etc., with no apparent qualms in Norstrilia, a loud contradiction to the spirit of love evident in "The Dead Lady of Clown Town." (Smith also wrote, for his day job, a widely used manual on psychological warfare; there may be a connection.)

Most are very readable stories. Smith's prose is clean and suggestive. (I found "Under Old Earth" to be an exception, since I didn't understand it.) However, the horror underneath makes me reluctant to recommend them; even "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" is suspect. One wonders whether this is only the element of "the grotesque" that Flannery O'Connor wrote about, present to shock the audience into seeing themselves clearly. However, I somehow missed whatever deeper truths might be present to redeem these stories. Since Cordwainer Smith has been dead for 40 years or so, he is probably not responsible for the way the anthology was assembled; perhaps his selection of stories would have included ones that revealed more about each other, since, as I said, they all touch on the same universe. For a story like "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" there is no apparent excuse; for "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" there are redeeming elements, but consider finally what happens to Elaine when she is reluctant to go with her "True Love" (this is probably a spoiler but shows what I think is most wrong about this story):

Elaine, her hand to her mouth, tried to inventory symptoms as a means of keeping her familiar thoughts in balance. It did not work. A relaxation spread over her, a happiness and quiet that she had not once felt since her childhood.

"Did you think," said the Hunter, "that I hunted with my body and killed with my hands? Didn't anyone ever tell you that the game comes to me rejoicing, that the animals die while they scream with pleasure?"


Martin LaBar said...

Smith is one of my favorite authors. I'm glad to have almost all of his published material in my collection.

Joshua said...

Care to elaborate any on why he's one of your favorites?

The Overgrown Hobbit said...

But. But. Some things ought to horrify one! And some storytellers do great deeds by showing that a thing is, in fact, horrific, when the Spirit of the Age speaks to the contrary...

What I got from the stories is that utopias are evil--even, perhaps, especially--hhe "successful" ones. But then Mr. Linebarger (aka "Cordwainer Smith") was the god-son of Sun Yat Sen: he was intimately familiar with the various heaven-on-earth movements of the 20th century.

I have been, and am, inclined to give Smith the benefit of the doubt. Like you, I know that his wartime service involved psychological warfare. Unlike you, I know the piece of it of which he is most proud: He devised a series of phrases and gestures, which, in Korean, meant things like "duty, honor and justice and family goodness" but which in English sounded and looked like "I surrender" And devised the leaflet bombing for Korean troops who needed/wanted to give in to Allied troops.

Gotta admire a mind that works like that.

My favorite story is "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" for the eerieness, and the sadness of it. One can see in it how the desire to achieve perfect happiness here-and-now can utterly destroy human joy. And how the ability to be truly human, to love and to know you are loved, can be worth dying for.

Anyhoo: my two cents.

There's also the world-building, the imagery and the language, all of which are waaaaaaaaaaay above par and for which reason many writers cite Smith as among their inspirations...

Joshua said...

Thanks for the comment!

You're right, I didn't know any specifics about his service, but I'm ambivalent about the example you cite.

I also agree about the writing itself; it is certainly very readable. If it hadn't been I probably would have complained about it. (Shame on me for focusing on negatives. I'm trying to get away from that in general, but it didn't occur to me to try it in book reviews.) However, I found the horror to far outweigh the skill in the writing. Perhaps if I had analyzed it to the point of saying, "Well, what if his audience was those enamoured of socialist gene-modified utopias?", I would have also seen great value in its warning me before I took over the world and implemented my plan... okay, I better stop and think before I put my foot in my mouth any more.

I may post a longer reply later if I get my thoughts together in what I consider a coherent enough manner to defend, but (knowing myself) that probably won't happen.

As an odd side note, the spell checker in my browser doesn't think "enamoured" is a word, and it has no suggestions for how to fix it.

Joshua said...

By the way, do you have other examples of such storytellers as you mention, who "do great deeds by showing that a thing is, in fact, horrific, when the Spirit of the Age speaks to the contrary"?

Joshua said...

Oh boy. Three comments in a row. I really should learn to think more before I post.

The more obvious rejoinder to your first statement is this: just because something horrifies one is no reason to fill your mind with it.

The Overgrown Hobbit said...

do you have other examples of such storytellers as you mention, who "do great deeds by showing that a thing is, in fact, horrific, when the Spirit of the Age speaks to the contrary"?

C.S. Lewis and "N.I.C.E." in That Hideous Strength;

Lois Bujold and cloned-humans as product (rather than people) in Mirror Dance;

George Orwell (you know his stuff, of course.)

Of course, most writers of dystopias, or who include dystopic elements in their stories run more to preaching-to-the-choir, ala Sherri Tepper and the "Ohmighod Mormon Fundies are ScaryBad" in Grass (which is an excellent example of a very good, bad book--certainly a guilty pleasure of mine.

Obviously my little list is science-fiction heavy, but since I usually avoid horror like the plague, I'm only likely to read horrific-but-instructive scenes in the genre I normally enjoy, rather than in it's, erm, natural element.

But one can think of say, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in which the villain is the hubristic scientist so enamored of his own powers, his only ability to progress that he creates a monstrosity. I'm no Luddite, but it remains one of the more thoughtful correctives to the power of men to reshape other men, willy nilly.

Anyhoo: that's the kind of thing I meant, I hope I am more clear!

(Now off to go take a look at my e-mail settings!