Thursday, May 1, 2014

Three stories by Cordwainer Smith: "War No. 81-Q," "Mark Elf," and "Queen of the Afternoon"

I was impressed by "Scanners Live in Vain," "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell," and some other stories by Cordwainer Smith when I read them earlier this year, and so I checked out from the library NESFA's The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith.  This week I read three stories from Smith's famous Instrumentality of Mankind sequence, set in the period before the Instrumentality.

"War No. 81-Q" (rewritten version) (1961)

In a near future time period nation states resolve disputes via highly regulated spectator sport-like wars.  These wars are fought over defined areas for defined periods of less than a week, between drone dirigibles controlled by expert pilots thousands of miles from the battlefield.  Smith economically sets the scene and then tells us the history of one of these brief wars, in which the United States and Tibet fight over the ownership of an American-built solar power station in the Himalayas.

The fight is interesting, and very reminiscent of the online multi-player dogfighting and tank commanding games I played before my graphics card bit the dust.  Besides the action sequences, Smith satirizes political interference in military matters (the president calls up the US pilot and distracts him during a crucial moment of the battle!) and, by depicting a bloodless war fought by chivalrous gentleman athletes, throws into relief the realities of 20th century warfare, with its mass armies, tremendous casualties, and devastation of civilian life and infrastructure.  Smith tells us that this period of licensed dirigible war lasted only a few happy centuries, and that the Earth would again suffer mass total war before the rise of the Instrumentality.

This is a solid entertaining story.  An early version was printed in 1928, when the author was in high school.  I read a version that was completely rewritten in 1961.  Both versions are in the NESFA volume.

"Mark Elf"  (1957)

This story first appeared in a SF magazine I've never heard of, Saturn, under the title "Mark XI."

It is 16,000 years in the future!  The Earth has suffered nuclear wars and attendant societal collapses, and so, high above, many abandoned space stations orbit the globe.  Telepaths on the surface reach out with their minds, searching for these hulks, and, when they find one, use their mental powers to guide them back to Earth.

Laird, one of these telepaths, brings down an ancient rocket, occupied by the cryogenically frozen teen-aged daughter of a German scientist - in 1945 the scientist launched Carlotta into orbit to keep her out of the hands of the Soviets.  On the surface of the devastated Earth Carlotta meets some of the weird characters that populate this far future world.

Among them are a robot war machine, programmed to kill all non-Germans during a war in 2495.  The machine recognizes the young woman as the last representative of the people he was built to protect, and promises to report to her every one hundred years.  She also meets a friendly telepathic bear.  Finally, Laird arrives, eager to take Carlotta as his bride.  I guess, like Roger Zelazny's "This Mortal Mountain," we can think of "Mark Elf" as a sleeping beauty story.

This story is full of interesting ideas; the telepaths searching and bringing down antique space craft, the millenia-old killer machines stalking the world; the hinted-at society of talking animals, Moron administrators, and distant, abstruse True Men.  There isn't much plot, really, "Mark Elf" is more of a mood piece and a setting; in some ways it feels like the first chapter of a book.  It is good, and it makes sense as part of the larger Instrumentality sequence, but I wonder what readers back in 1957 thought of it.

"Queen of the Afternoon" (1978)

Twenty years later Smith returned to the theme of German-girl-in-suspended-animation-for-thousands-of-years in a story which got the cover of Galaxy, "Queen of the Afternoon."

Carlotta's sister, Juli, was also packed into a rocket and launched into orbit just before the Red Army got to their father.  In this story Juli's rocket crashes right next to some friendly telepathic dog people, who take her to the same friendly telepathic bear her sister met in "Mark Elf."  The bear takes Juli into one of the mysterious cities of the aloof True Men, where she meets Carlotta, who is now some 200 years old, a wrinkled old wreck, and Laird, still hale and hearty due to rejuvenation treatments that don't quite work on 20th century humans.

Carlotta's husband brought Juli down from orbit because Carlotta is old and dying, and he needs a wife to help him in his work for "the rebellion."  The True Men are ruled by the Jwindz, a tyrannical elite.  Before the appearance of Carlotta the True Men were submissive to the Jwindz, but Carlotta's 20th century mind has served as an example and inspired some of the True Men to oppose the Jwindz.  Juli will take Carlotta's place as Laird's husband and a rallying point for the rebellion.

The Jwindz are quickly deposed through trickery, and the telepath and Juli found the Instrumentality of Mankind.  When Juli becomes old Laird decides to forgo the treatments that allow the True Men to live for hundreds of years, and die with his beloved wife.

With its talking animals, people who live for hundreds of years, girl who becomes a Queen, bloodless victory over the Jwindz, and happy ending, "Queen of the Afternoon" feels a little like a fairy tale.  It also feels a little like the not-necessarily-true foundation myths of great countries, like the American legend of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree or the Roman tales of Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, or the rape of Lucretia by King Tarquin.


I liked these stories, and am looking forward to reading more of Smith's Instrumentality stories.            

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