Space Lords, by Cordwainer Smith
Posted January 6, 2012on:
Space Lords, by Cordwainer Smith
Published in 1965
where I got it: purchased used
In a far future imagined by Cordwainer Smith, an all powerful government, the Instrumentality, rules from the planet Norstrilia, and stays in power by being the sole producer of the anti-aging drug known as “stroon”. With the help of faster than light travel, known as “planoforming”, humanity has colonized hundreds of thousands of planets. Thanks to advances in genetic engineering, scientists can create animals in the shape of men. A cat, or a cow, or a bear or an elephant can have all the attributes of that animal such as strength or speed or appetite, all crammed into a human shaped being. Known as the underpeople, these animal people are not human and therefore have no rights. Used as servants and slaves, the underpeople are typically as ignored as the human lower castes they replaced. It takes care of the prickly problems of human rights, or not, as the case may be.
Most of these stories have poems or songs in them. And not the usual scifi fantasy badly put together stanzas with awkwardly forced rhymes and meter, these are little ditties that you actually want to sign. I get the impression that Smith was, at heart, a hopeless romantic. In a short yet wonderfully intimate prologue, Smith welcomes us to his world and offers some parallels to his short stories that we might be familiar with: Joan d’Arc, Dante’s Inferno, the story of Ali Baba, to name a few. But don’t worry, you don’t need to be familiar or have ever even heard of any of those things to enjoy the magnificent fiction in Space Lords:
Mother Hitton’s Little Kittons – Smith makes a joke in the Epilogue that readers should take care not to let anyone under the age of twelve read this story, and it’s good advice. The Little Kittons are utterly horrifying. Master thief Benjacomin of Viola Siderea is going to steal the biggest secret in the galaxy. He’s going to find out what exactly protects the planet of Norstrilia, the first step in stealing even the smallest amount of the drug stroon. Through murder and the gambling of the labor of an entire planet, Benjacomin gets closer than any foreigner has ever come to the truth. But as designed, the defences find him first. A defense no one could possibly imagine or expect, he discovers to his demise the cruelty and vileness of Mother Hitton.
The Dead Lady of Clown Town – told as a historic myth of sorts, this is the story of the doomed Elaine, and the twice doomed underperson D’joan. Poor, poor Elaine. Through basic human error, she was assigned the wrong career, the wrong number, and sent to the wrong planet, her DNA tells her she is a lay therapist, but everyone on the planet of Formault III was born so healthy, so beautiful, so perfect, that no one is in need of healing, or midwifery, or poultices, or touch therapy. Elaine, bored and useless, wonders why she was allowed to be born at all. And then she finds a door. Out of boredom, she opens it. To find a prophesying computer woman, and a secret home of undocumented Underpeople. If Elaine leaves, the computers will know where the underpeople are, and they will all be killed for daring to live free. Elaine meets D’joan, a little dog-girl, who believes in loving the humans no matter what. Even if the humans kill all the underpeople behind the nondescript door, D’joan would prefer to love them instead of hating them. What is the more powerful force? That of hating someone you believe is inferior to you, or loving all intelligent creatures as equals? The longest story in the volume, this is just the beginning of Smith’s powerful storytelling.
Drunkboat – Planoforming may be faster than light speed, but it certainly isn’t instantaneous. Is it possibly for man to travel faster? More importantly, is it possibly for us to survive faster travel? Lord Crudelta masterminded a cruel method of getting someone to volunteer to attempt his new travel discovery – travelling through what is known as Space3. Thus, Artyr Rambo dove through spacetime, only to be found unconscious and naked on the lawn of a hospital. The doctors do what they can to help him, but his slack body insists on “swimming” against the floor. They can’t wake him, they don’t know who he is, or how he got there. When Lord Crudelta arrives via planoforming ship nearly two weeks later to claim Rambo, he’ll learn the price to be paid when humans are forced through space3. A tragic and powerful tale, but people do crazy things out of love.
The Ballad of Lost C’mell – Times, they are a-changing, and even the high Lords have begun to view the underpeople as people, with actual human rights. Lord Jestocost the 7th is one such Lord. When he attends the funeral of famous underperson athelete, he meets C’mell. Of Cat derivation, C’mell is employed as a welcomer, a honorably flirtacious host, what citizens of the original Manhome just might translate as Geisha. This is a tragic romance, C’mell knows they can’t be together. Jestocost does everything in his power to make their relationship safe for her, but only she understands the true risks an underperson must take to be with a true human. A thinly veiled civil rights story? Who knows, but stories like this are the reason ballads are written in minor keys.
A Planet Named Shayol – What might hell be like? Mercer knows where he’s headed, but he’s nervous all the same. The doctors in the satellite hospital above Shayol offer to lobotomize him, remove his eyeballs, anything he’d like, to help him survive the planet below. Shayol, needs an orbiting hospital, because it’s part of the prisoners punishment. And the residents of Shayol live a very, very, very, long time. An alternate, parallel circle of hell, there are no guards, no weapons, no towers on Shayol, only the underperson B’Dikkat in his cabin and the infectious (literally) dromatazoa. The residents of Shayol treat each other surprisingly nicely, taking care of and helping each other. Mercer comes to wonder if it’s not that awful of a place after all. He’s got a ladyfriend, and every few days B’Dikkat comes by with his syringe and checks on everyone’s growths and bodily progressions. What was said about younger readers not reading about the Little Kittons? They probably shouldn’t read at Shayol either. I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t read it with my own eyes, but there are things even B’Dikkat isn’t capable of punishing.
I can rarely say it about a collection of short stories, but every part of Space Lords was absolutely excellent. Most, if not all of the stories in Space Lords have an emotional kick to them. It’s usually a tragic kick, but the kind of kick that gives you hope for our future, instead of taking it away. I’d never heard of Cordwainer Smith until a few months ago. Offering prose that feels timeless and effortless, if you see a Cordwainer Smith at a bookstore, do yourself a favor and buy it. I know I will.
Stay tuned tomorrow, for a quick bio and further discussion on Cordwainer Smith.