Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Three Stories by Cordwainer Smith: "Game of Rat and Dragon," "Scanners Live in Vain," & "No, No, Not Rogov!"

My recent reading of "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A turned me on to Cordwainer Smith.  So I investigated SFFAudio's PDF page and dug through my books and found three Smith stories, "Game of Rat and Dragon," "Scanners Live in Vain," and "No, No, Not Rogov!"

"Game of Rat and Dragon" (1955)

This story first appeared in the October '55 issue of Galaxy, and I read that original magazine version, available at SFFAudio, complete with the illustrations by Hunter, which are not bad.

"Game of Rat and Dragon" is about space travel, and I wonder if this story was the inspiration for some of the space travel stuff in Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000  universe.  Interstellar travel is achieved by a series of "jumps" or "skips."  Unfortunately, "underneath space itself" live malicious and voracious psychic entities who will devour people's minds whenever they have a chance.  These creatures can kill people or drive them insane right through the hull of a space ship, but they cannot abide bright light - for this reason they are never encountered within the solar system; the sun's rays, within that range, are too much for them.  Ships are vulnerable to attack during the middle stages of a space voyage, in the blackness of deep space.

The story is a description of mankind's response to these monsters.  Telepaths connected to an apparatus can detect the creatures and detonate explosives that generate a flash of light powerful enough to destroy them, but the monsters move rapidly, and can often exterminate a space ship's crew before the telepath can kill them.  So human telepaths work in concert with cat telepaths, cats being natural predators with quicker reflexes than humans.  The twist or "zing" of the story is that the human telepaths can develop a close relationship with their feline partners, which can become an obstacle to developing relationships with other humans - the main character of the 19-page story laments that he won't be likely to find a human woman who has the good qualities exhibited by one of the cat psychics he has worked, while women he meets openly, jealously, resent his abilities and relationships with cats. (This is the second Cordwainer Smith story I've read in which a human has a sort of love relationship with a feline.)

"Game of Rat and Dragon" is a fun entertaining tale, a little above average with a very cool premise.

"Scanners Live in Vain" (1950)   

"Scanners Live in Vain" was first published in the sixth issue of Fantasy Book, a "semi-pro zine," but would achieve wider exposure when it appeared in an anthology edited by Frederick Pohl and then the first volume of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

The story certainly deserved to be included in the Hall of Fame; it is a great story.  I can't believe I read it at Rutgers in 1990 and was not impressed by it.  Maybe I didn't actually read it, just heard it discussed in class.  Or maybe I'm a different person than I was then.

"Scanners Live in Vain" depicts a crazy world full of crazy people, but despite how crazy everything is, you care about the people in the story and what happens to them.

In the universe Smith depicts, travel in space inflicts on people a terrible pain and a desire to die.  If you stay asleep, in a special chamber, you can escape this pain and death wish, but of course if you are asleep you can't manage the ship.  To crew space ships criminals are given an operation which separates their brains from their body parts, eliminating every sense but sight, and diminishing the pain and death wish so they can do work on the ship.  This is called the Haberman process, named after its inventor, and the space sailors are called habermen.  The habermen's bodily functions are managed by implanted mechanical parts with exposed controls; at one point in the story a haberman is hyperventilating and a friend reaches over and turns a knob to slow his respiration.  Severed from their bodies, these space crewmen don't feel or hear or taste; they move about clumsily, only able to speak haltingly and communicating by reading lips and through an elaborate sign language of bold gestures.

Habermen who are severely wounded might not even notice, so somebody has to be around to take care of them.  These are the Scanners, volunteers who go through the Haberman process but are also provided with additional scanning equipment.  Scanners accompany the habermen on the space ships and use their devices to keep an eye on the ordinary habermen and repair them if they get damaged.  Scanners when off duty are permitted to periodically use a device that reconnects their brains with their bodies, so they can for short periods enjoy food, music, smells, and sex.

The plot of the story shows what happens when an inventor discovers a way to protect humans from the horrible pain of space.  All of a sudden the habermen and scanners are out of a job.  Rather than face the fact that their sacrifice of bodily feeling was pointless, the scanners try to murder the inventor before his invention can be presented to the rulers of mankind.  But one scanner betrays his comrades and maintains a greater loyalty, a loyalty to mankind and to the law, and tries to prevent the murder.

"Scanners Live in Vain" is a terrific story, a real SF classic.  It does expertly so many of the things that we often want science fiction to do, like depicting a strange world with advanced technology that is going through a revolutionary change, and also has emotional human elements and action/adventure suspense elements.  Very fine.

"No, No, Not Rogov!" (1959)

This one appeared first in If.  I read it in my copy of Hartwell and Cramer's Ascent of Wonder.

Most of "No, No, Not Rogov!" does not take place in the far future.  Instead, it is about Soviet scientists in the 1940s.  Rogov, one of the greatest minds in the Communist world, and his wife, another genius scientist, are allocated vast resources by Stalin to develop technologies to help defeat Nazi Germany and later the capitalist West.  They come up with a device which can receive brain waves.  In theory, one can hook up to the machine (by having an electric needle inserted through the skull into the brain, ouch) and then see and hear what another person, even thousands of miles away, sees and hears.  Experiments on unwilling prisoners who are well aware they will be executed to maintain security are not working out satisfactorily, so Rogov goes under the needle himself.

Somehow, the device tunes in on a person from 12,000 years in the future, and Rogov witnesses a musical and dance performance of the future.  The performance, the result of thousands of years of cultural evolution and influence from many sophisticated alien cultures, is so beautiful, so transcendent, it blows Rogov's mind and renders him useless to his Soviet masters.

Like "Game of Rat and Dragon," "No, No, Not Rogov!" is a fun entertaining tale with a neat premise; a little above average, but not spectacular.


Three worthwhile stories, one in the top rank.  I will definitely keep my eyes open for opportunities to read more Cordwainer Smith stories.


  1. I'm constantly lamenting the fact Cordwainer Smith essentially wrote only two works of genre: the novel Nostrilia, and the collection The Rediscovery of Man which brings together most but not all of the Instrumentality stories, two of which you sampled above. The stories are so unique and transcendent of the era in which they were written that most of his peers pale in comparison - in my humble opinion. I can still recall the sense of amazement turning the pages of Rediscovery...

    1. It is definitely exciting to find a "new" author that I can enjoy his much. If all goes according to plan I will soon be checking out a copy of Smith's complete short SF (published in 1993) at the library.

  2. I am extremely glad you have discovered Cordwainer Smith. Along with Lafferty and LeGuin, he is one of my very favorite authors. My favorite stories of his are "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" for the way he introduces the extremely novel and strange as humdrum and the (to us) everyday as extreme novelties, "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" which I consider his greatest work, and (of course) "Scanners Live in Vain." Thank you again for these excellent reviews. I wish you very happy reading!