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
LanguageEnglish
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.

Background

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.

Reception

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]

Notes

  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.

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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.

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"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".

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