disturbing plot elements

March 16, 2020

the main attraction of Cordwainer Smith is…the extravagant and often disturbing plot elements that make his stories stand out from the pack. When Smith submitted his first sci-fi story “Scanners Live in Vain” to John Campbell, Jr., the mastermind behind the influential Astounding magazine, the seasoned editor turned it down because it was, in his words, “too extreme.”

Campbell was no stranger to controversy. Around this same time he battled with FBI agents who wanted to pull an issue of Astounding magazine off the newsstands because it described how to make an atomic bomb. And a few years later he helped pave the way for the Church of Scientology by publishing L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in the May, 1950 issues of Astounding (but feeling compelled to add the editorial note: “This article is not a hoax, joke….” etc. etc.). Even so, Smith’s creepy story of a quasi-priesthood of astronauts who need to become deaf in order to withstand the horrors of space was pushing the envelope too far for this intrepid periodical. The scanners tale is almost a surrealistic nightmare, with little in common with the kind of whiz-bang high-tech adventure that sci-fi readers craved in those days.

In his later stories, Smith continued to reach for bizarre and extreme effects. In his novel Norstrilia, a man gets surgically turned into a cat, and has a romance with a feline who has become genetically altered into a “girly girl.” In this same work, people achieve great wealth through the cultivation of diseased sheep. In the short story “A Planet Named Shayol,” a criminal is condemned to a prison planet where inhabitants undergo excruciating pain while miniscule creatures called dromozoans take over their bodily processes—sucking waste from intestines, putting nutrients into the bloodstream—and also add extra eyes, stomachs, arms, and other organs to their bodies that can be harvested for medical purposes. In Smith’s surreal novella “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” a dog-girl is assisted by a dead woman in achieving a martyrdom reminiscent of the burning of Joan of Arc at the stake. Even by the loose standards of sci-fi stories, these tales are strange and disturbing. The reader’s reaction is inevitably along the lines of “where did these crazy ideas come from?” or perhaps merely a vaguely disquieting sense that the author has intentionally tried to gross out his audience.

In short, people who don’t like science fiction will really hate these stories. In a genre that rarely shows restraint, Cordwainer Smith may have been the loosest cannon of them all. Think of his mental universe as a kind of Twilight Zone where even Rod Serling gets freaked out.

Ted Gioia
Remembering Cordwainer Smith: Full-Time Sci-Fi Author, Part-Time Earthling
The Atlantic 26th March 2013