Scanners Live in Vain

"Scanners Live in Vain" is a science fiction short story by Cordwainer Smith (pen name of American writer Paul Linebarger), set in his Instrumentality of Mankind future history. It was originally published in the magazine Fantasy Book in 1950. It was judged by the Science Fiction Writers of America to be one of the finest short stories prior to 1965 and was included in the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964. A revised text, based on Linebarger's original manuscript, appears in the 1993 NESFA Press collection The Rediscovery of Man (where it is accompanied by a facsimile of his original cover letter) and the 2007 collection When the People Fell. The story was nominated for a Retro Hugo award in 2001. It has been published in Hebrew, Italian, French, German and Dutch translations.[1]

"Scanners Live in Vain"
Fantasy book 1950 n6
cover illustration by Jack Gaughan
AuthorCordwainer Smith
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Science fiction
Published inFantasy Book volume 1 number 6
Publication typePeriodical
Media typePrint
Publication dateJanuary 1950

Plot summary

The story is set circa A.D. 6000. Humanity has colonized planets around other stars, but interstellar travel is constrained by the mysterious "First Effect", which causes the "Great Pain of Space" and induces a death wish in humans. Passengers on interstellar voyages are stored in cold sleep, while the crew of the spaceship is composed of Habermans: convicts and other riff-raff who have undergone an operation in which the brain is severed from all sensory input except that from the eyes. This blocks the Pain of Space but puts them somewhere between human and machine, with zombie-like behavior and disturbed psyches, dependent on constant monitoring and adjustment of their vital functions via implanted dials and regulatory instruments.

The Habermans are supervised in space by Scanners, who undergo the operation voluntarily; they are permitted, unlike the Habermans, to monitor themselves and are respected by themselves and others as essential to keeping the space lanes open and uniting the Earths of Mankind. The Scanners live a horribly lonely and difficult life, punctuated by brief intervals of cranching—use of a device that temporarily restores normal neural connectivity. They compensate by maintaining a fanatically elitist confraternity, with secret rituals and body language, absolute loyalty, and a demand for autonomy maintained by the threat that "No ships go" if any Scanner is wronged. No Scanner has ever killed another Scanner.

The protagonist of the story is Scanner Martel, set apart by his marriage to a normal woman. At the start of the story he has cranched and is trying to relax at home, but is ordered to an emergency meeting of the confraternity (such a major emergency that it even over-rides the protocol permitting a cranched member to decline to attend). The leader of the Scanners, Vomact (a member of the vom Acht or Vomact family which plays a prominent role through much of Smith's Instrumentality future history), informs the meeting that one Adam Stone is about to make public a method to prevent the Pain of Space in normal people, thereby rendering Scanners obsolete. The Scanners vote to kill Stone, and only Martel in his cranched state and his friend Chang (the only Scanner who, via long practice, can appear "normal" when not cranched) can grasp the moral and practical wrongness of this decision. When they are the only two dissenters to the murder vote, Martel tries to reach Stone before the appointed assassin and warn him. In order to enter the city where Stone lives without revealing himself to be a Scanner, Martel breaks off his specially formed fingernail, used by scanners to communicate by writing on a board attached to their chests, and symbolic of the status of being a scanner.

Martel succeeds in warning Stone, who explains that ships with walls packed with living material (such as oysters) shield the passengers from the Pain. At this point the assassin arrives, who turns out to be Martel's other best friend, Parizianski. In a high-speed battle, Martel ends up killing Parizianski before lapsing into unconsciousness from the pain of operating in high-speed while cranched. When he awakens, he finds that he is the first Scanner that Stone has restored to normality; the Instrumentality plans to appoint all of them to be spaceship pilots, allowing them to maintain their guild, and they have agreed, albeit some reluctantly. At the very end, Martel learns from his unsuspecting wife that people have been told that Parizianski died because he was so happy upon learning the truth from Stone that he forgot to self-monitor.


This was Linebarger's first published science-fiction story as an adult (his short story "War No. 81-Q", which he wrote at age 15, was published in his high school magazine), and the first appearance of the Cordwainer Smith pen name. It was written in 1945, and had been rejected by a number of magazines before its acceptance and publication in Fantasy Book in 1950. It was in that obscure magazine that it was noticed by science fiction writer Frederik Pohl who, impressed with the story's powerful imagery and style, subsequently re-published it in 1952 in the more widely read anthology Beyond the End of Time.


Pohl said that "Scanners Live in Vain" "is perhaps the chief reason why Fantasy Book is remembered". [2] Robert Silverberg called it "one of the classic stories of science fiction" and noted its "sheer originality of concept" and its "deceptive and eerie simplicity of narrative".[3] John J. Pierce, in his introduction to the anthology The Best of Cordwainer Smith, commented on the strong sense of religion it shares with Smith's other works, likening the Code of the Scanners to the Saying of the Law in H. G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau.[4]

Graham Sleight lauded Smith's depiction of Martel's cranched perspective, calling it "a story about absence", but faulted his portrayal of Martel's wife Luci, whom he describes as "just a plot device".[5]

Science fiction scholar Alan C. Elms has suggested that the story reflects Smith's own deep psychological pain, symbolized by the "Great Pain of Space" (which is described in terms reminiscent of depression) and the isolation of the Scanners. The outcome of the story can by this interpretation be seen as indicative of his acceptance of help.[6]


  1. ^ ISFDB bibliography
  2. ^ Pohl, Frederik (December 1966). "Cordwainer Smith". Editorial. Galaxy Science Fiction. p. 6.
  3. ^ Silverberg, Robert. Science Fiction 101: Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder. ibooks, New York, 2001.
  4. ^ The Best of Cordwainer Smith, ed. John J. Pierce, Ballantine Books, New York, 1975.
  5. ^ Yesterday's Tomorrows: Cordwainer Smith, reviewed by Graham Sleight, in Locus, April 2007; archived online October 18 2007; retrieved December 19, 2017
  6. ^ Alan C. Elms, "The Creation of Cordwainer Smith", Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Nov., 1984), pp. 264-283.

External links

2017 in public domain

When a work's copyright expires, it enters the public domain. The following is a list of works that enter the public domain in 2017. Since laws vary globally, the copyright status of some works are not uniform.

Aye, and Gomorrah

"Aye, and Gomorrah..." is a science fiction short story by American writer Samuel R. Delany. It is the first short story Delany sold, and won the 1967 Nebula Award for best short story. Before it appeared in Driftglass and Aye, and Gomorrah, and other stories, it first appeared as the final story in Harlan Ellison's seminal 1967 anthology, Dangerous Visions. It was controversial because of its disturbing sexual subject matter, and has been called "one of the best stories by a gay man published in the 1960s." Graham Sleight has described it as a "revisionist take" on Cordwainer Smith's story "Scanners Live in Vain".


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Cordwainer Smith

Cordwainer Smith ( KORD-way-nər) was the pen-name used by American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (July 11, 1913 – August 6, 1966) for his science fiction works. Linebarger was a noted East Asia scholar and expert in psychological warfare. ("Cordwainer" is an archaic word for "a worker in cordwain or cordovan leather; a shoemaker", and a "smith" is "one who works in iron or other metals; esp. a blacksmith or farrier": two kinds of skilled workers with traditional materials.)

Linebarger also employed the literary pseudonyms "Carmichael Smith" (for his political thriller Atomsk), "Anthony Bearden" (for his poetry) and "Felix C. Forrest" (for the novels Ria and Carola).

He died of a heart attack in 1966 at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, at age 53.

Fantasy Book

Fantasy Book is a defunct semi-professional American science fiction magazine that published eight issues between 1947 and 1951. The editor was William Crawford, and the publisher was Crawford's Fantasy Publishing Company, Inc. Crawford had problems distributing the magazine, and his budget limited the quality of the paper he could afford and the artwork he was able to buy, but he attracted submissions from some well-known writers, including Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, A. E. van Vogt, Robert Bloch, and L. Ron Hubbard. The best-known story to appear in the magazine was Cordwainer Smith's first sale, "Scanners Live in Vain", which was later included in the first Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology, and is now regarded as one of Smith's finest works. Jack Gaughan, later an award-winning science fiction artist, made his first professional sale to Fantasy Book, for the cover illustrating Smith's story.

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History of US science fiction and fantasy magazines to 1950

Science fiction and fantasy magazines began to be published in the United States in the 1920s. Stories with science fiction themes had been appearing for decades in pulp magazines such as Argosy, but there were no magazines that specialized in a single genre until 1915, when Street & Smith, one of the major pulp publishers, brought out Detective Story Magazine. The first magazine to focus solely on fantasy and horror was Weird Tales, which was launched in 1923, and established itself as the leading weird fiction magazine over the next two decades; writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard became regular contributors. In 1926 Weird Tales was joined by Amazing Stories, published by Hugo Gernsback; Amazing printed only science fiction, and no fantasy. Gernsback included a letter column in Amazing Stories, and this led to the creation of organized science fiction fandom, as fans contacted each other using the addresses published with the letters. Gernsback wanted the fiction he printed to be scientifically accurate, and educational, as well as entertaining, but found it difficult to obtain stories that met his goals; he printed "The Moon Pool" by Abraham Merritt in 1927, despite it being completely unscientific. Gernsback lost control of Amazing Stories in 1929, but quickly started several new magazines. Wonder Stories, one of Gernsback's titles, was edited by David Lasser, who worked to improve the quality of the fiction he received. Another early competitor was Astounding Stories of Super-Science, which appeared in 1930, edited by Harry Bates, but Bates printed only the most basic adventure stories with minimal scientific content, and little of the material from his era is now remembered.

In 1933 Astounding was acquired by Street & Smith, and it soon became the leading magazine in the new genre, publishing early classics such as Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time" in 1934. A couple of competitors to Weird Tales for fantasy and weird fiction appeared, but none lasted, and the 1930s is regarded as Weird Tales' heyday. Between 1939 and 1941 there was a boom in science fiction and fantasy magazines: several publishers entered the field, including Standard Magazines, with Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories (a retitling of Wonder Stories); Popular Publications, with Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories; and Fiction House, with Planet Stories, which focused on melodramatic tales of interplanetary adventure. Ziff-Davis launched Fantastic Adventures, a fantasy companion to Amazing. Astounding extended its pre-eminence in the field during the boom: the editor, John W. Campbell, developed a stable of young writers that included Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and A.E. van Vogt. The period starting in 1938, when Campbell took control of Astounding, is often referred to as the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Well-known stories from this era include Slan, by van Vogt, and "Nightfall", by Asimov. Campbell also launched Unknown, a fantasy companion to Astounding, in 1939; this was the first serious competitor for Weird Tales. Although wartime paper shortages forced Unknown's cancellation in 1943, it is now regarded as one of the most influential pulp magazines.

Only eight science fiction and fantasy magazines survived World War II. All were still in pulp magazine format except for Astounding, which had switched to a digest format in 1943. Astounding continued to publish popular stories, including "Vintage Season" by C. L. Moore, and "With Folded Hands ..." by Jack Williamson. The quality of the fiction in the other magazines improved over the decade: Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder in particular published some excellent material and challenged Astounding for the leadership of the field. A few more pulps were launched in the late 1940s, but almost all were intended as vehicles to reprint old classics. One exception, Out of This World Adventures, was an experiment by Avon, combining fiction with some pages of comics. It was a failure and lasted only two issues. Magazines in digest format began to appear towards the end of the decade, including Other Worlds, edited by Raymond Palmer. In 1949, the first issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction appeared, followed in October 1950 by the first issue of Galaxy Science Fiction; both were digests, and between them soon dominated the field. Very few science fiction or fantasy pulps were launched after this date; the 1950s was the beginning of the era of digest magazines, though the leading pulps continued until the mid-1950s, and authors began selling to mainstream magazines and large book publishers.

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Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 12 (1950) is the twelfth volume of Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories, which is a series of short story collections, edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, which attempts to list the great science fiction stories from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. They date the Golden Age as beginning in 1939 and lasting until 1963. The book was later reprinted as the second half of Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction, Sixth Series with the first half being Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 11 (1949). It was the last book in the series to be reprinted as part of the Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction series.

This volume was originally published by DAW books in September 1984.

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Science and Sorcery

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The Rediscovery of Man

The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith (ISBN 0-915368-56-0) is a 1993 book containing the complete collected short fiction of American science fiction author Cordwainer Smith. It was edited by James A. Mann and published by NESFA Press.

Most of the stories take place in Smith's future history set in the universe of the Instrumentality of Mankind; the collection is arranged in the chronological order in which the stories take place in the fictional timeline. The collection also contains short stories which do not take place in this universe.

Within the context of the future history, the Rediscovery of Mankind refers to the Instrumentality's re-introduction of chance and unhappiness into the sterile utopia that they had created for humanity. Other than Smith's novel, Norstrilia, which takes place in the same future history, the book collects all of Smith's known science fiction writing.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964

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It was first published by Doubleday and subsequently reprinted by Avon Books in July 1971 (Library of Congress Card Catalog Number: 70-97691; ISBN 0-380-00795-9), and later by Orb.

The book was first published in the UK in 1971 by Victor Gollancz Ltd and in paperback by First Sphere Books in 1972 (in two volumes, split after "First Contact").The content of the book was decided by a vote of the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America, choosing among short stories (up to 15,000 words long) that predated the Nebula Awards. Among the top 15 vote-getters, one (Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star") was disqualified in order to prevent any writer from being represented twice; it was replaced by the 16th-place finisher ("Arena"), and the resulting list of 15 stories was included in the collection. Silverberg then used his judgment, rather than the strict vote count, in selecting 11 of the next 15, for a total of 26 stories.

In 1973, it was followed by The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two: The Greatest Science Fiction Novellas of All Time. Further volumes were published, consisting of early Nebula winners, thus straying outside the original "pre-Nebula" concept.

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When the People Fell

"When the People Fell" is a science fiction short story by Cordwainer Smith, set in his "Instrumentality" universe. It was originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in April, 1959, and is collected in The Rediscovery of Man, and in the collection of which it is the title story. The story takes place relatively early in the Instrumentality timeline, and a "scanner Vomact" appears both in this story and the classic story "Scanners Live in Vain".

The story recounts, in "flashback" form — an interview between a reporter and a crusty old-timer — a risky attempt by a future Chinese government to claim and settle the planet Venus, at a time when China is the only ethnic nation on Earth which has survived as a separate entity through a global nuclear war and a long dark age which followed. The story implicitly compares Western and Chinese approaches to solving an impossible problem and has the Chinese solution succeed, but at a cost Westerners would find repugnant.

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