The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith
Originally published as ‘The Best of Cordwainer Smith’ in 1975, this collection consists of twelve stories set in the author’s Instrumentality of Mankind universe. The contents follow the internal chronology of the Instrumentality, giving the reader an overview of the history and development of the society in which the stories are set — a society which is ruled by the hereditary Lords of the Instrumentality, who live for hundreds of years, thanks to the drug ‘stroon’, and where the human population is stagnating in enforced happiness, while the menial work of society is carried out by genetically uplifted animals known as ‘underpeople’.
Beginning with the first published Instrumentality story ‘Scanners Live In Vain’, we find a universe where space travel is only possible using cryonic suspension and spaceships are crewed by ‘Habermans’ — an underclass who have had all their senses except sight surgically eliminated, along with their personalities, in order to protect them from ‘the pain of space’, which would otherwise kill them or send them mad. The Habermans have their metabolism monitored and regulated by ‘scanners’ — volunteers who have also undergone the Haberman process, but retain their personalities — in order to make space travel possible.
When the scanners hear that a way has been found to block ‘the pain of space’ and travel without using Habermans, they decide to assassinate the inventor of the new way of travel, in order to protect their monopoly position in controlling spaceflight, but one scanner rebels and attempts to save the inventor.
The second story ‘The Lady Who Sailed The Soul’ is set a few years after the events of Scanners Live In Vain, and tells of an interstellar romance between a young woman, who wishes to become the pilot of a solar sail powered spaceship, and the older pilot of such a ship, who has returned to Earth from a colony planet after a forty year journey.
Moving on a few thousand years, ‘The Game of Rat and Dragon’ finds human travel in outer space threatened by strange creatures known as the Dragons. Imperceptible to ordinary people, Dragons are experienced as nothing but a sudden death or insanity. Dragons can only be destroyed by very strong light, but they move too fast for conventional defence methods. Telepathic humans and telepathic cats (who perceive the dragons as rats) are able to sense the creatures within milliseconds. The humans and cats work together as teams to protect interstellar spaceships traveling via ‘planoforming’ (a type of faster than light travel). The cats ride outside of the spaceships in their own tiny crafts, waiting for the order from their human partner to attack. Pin-sets (telepathic amplifiers) heighten a telepath’s senses and allow the humans to communicate with their partner cats. The cats then destroy the Dragons with ‘pinlights’, miniature nuclear bombs whose blast gives off pure visible radiance that can destroy the dragons. Thanks to the combination of the human mind and the cats' quick reactions, space travel is an acceptable risk.
In ‘The Burning of The Brain’, a spaceship captain becomes lost in space when his navigation board, to which he is mentally linked, is found to have been set up incorrectly. He must allow the ship’s telepaths to probe his brain to find a memory of a route home, but the process burns out his brain and leaves him mentally disabled.
Around four thousand years later in the Instrumentality timeline, we get ‘The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal’. Sent on a mission of exploration, the Commander discovers a deep space probe which tells a story about the plight of a group of settlers calling themselves the Arachosians, who have succumbed to a plague that renders femininity carcinogenic. They were only able to protect themselves from extinction by genetically making everyone male and developing a process to allow males to give birth. Generations later, the lack of females has led to the Arachosians regarding normal humans as abominations, who must be destroyed. They therefore sent out the probes, asking for help, to try to lure passing humans to their death.
Suzdal travels to Arachosia and awakes from cryo-sleep to find the Arachosians trying to break into his ship to kill him, or capture him to reveal the location of Earth. He uses an emergency device intended to send his large spacecraft back a few seconds in time to instead hurl feline genetic material (coded to evolve for intelligence and to obey Suzdal) millions of years back on the far side of the local moon. A race of advanced, space-faring cat-descendants appears instantaneously and hail Suzdal as their god and creator. They engage the Arachosians at his order, allowing him to escape.
Despite saving the ship and successfully concealing Earth's location from the Arachosians, Suzdal is stripped of rank and sentenced to the prison planet Shayol for his misuse of the time device.
In ‘Golden The Ship Was — Oh! Oh! Oh!’, the Instrumentality defeat a planned conquest of Earth by the dictator Raumsog using a fake superweapon — a space battle cruiser ninety million miles long — which is mostly made of foam. Whilst Raumsog is pre-occupied with the superweapon, a small stealth craft seeds the dictator’s planet with deadly diseases which wipe out the population.
Moving on a further thousand years, ‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’ is set on the planet Fomalhaut III, and is loosely based on the story of Joan of Arc. A therapist named Elaine becomes involved with a group of fugitive underpeople, living in a maze of drab service corridors jokingly dubbed ‘Clown Town’, who are being helped by Lady Panc Ashash (a computerised personality recording of a deceased Lady of the Instrumentality) and a telepath called The Hunter. Panc Ashash had predicted Elaine's coming, and how she would help the dog-girl D'joan create history by beginning a peaceful revolution calling for rights for the underpeople.
With help from Elaine and the Hunter, D'joan leads the fugitives from their hiding place in a march into the city. The underpeople go knowingly to their deaths professing their love and asserting that they too are people to the humans they meet along the way. Soldiers eventually arrive and end the revolution by killing all the underpeople, with the sole exception of D'joan. One of the Ladies of the Instrumentally on the scene chooses to put D'joan on trial — a remarkable occurrence, since underpeople did not have any such right. D'joan is sentenced to be burned to death.
The martyrdom of D'joan and the underpeople affect the human participants and witnesses in powerful, unanticipated ways. The lasting consequences eventually lead to the rebirth of religion, rights for the underpeople, and the Rediscovery of Man.
A thousand years later, ‘Under Old Earth’ tells the story of Sto Odin, a Lord of the Instrumentality, and his two robot servants, who are imprinted with the minds of dead men. They journey deep underground in search of the Gebiet: an underground city without the monotonous, enforced happiness of the surface world, where the laws of the Instrumentality are suspended and anything goes.
After a further thousand years, in ‘Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons’ a thief attempts to steal the life-extending drug ‘stroon’ from the planet Norstrilia, but first he must get past the planetary defences — Mother Hitton and her littul kittons.
In ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ we finally get to the beginnings of the Rediscovery of Man — a sudden radical shift from a controlling, benevolent, but sterile society, to one with individuality, danger and excitement.
The Instrumentality government, which in its overprotectiveness has driven the purpose from human existence, decides to turn back the clock to a less sheltered historical human era of 14,000 years before (i.e. our time). Virginia and Paul decide to undergo mental treatment to become French, but Virginia begins to have qualms about the artificial aspects of the personality she's been given, and wonders whether her love for Paul is real or synthesised. They decide to visit a computer, the Abba-dingo, never understood by the Instrumentality, which has reached the status of a god, able to foretell the future. It can only be reached walking a ruined processional highway leading into the clouds: Alpha Ralpha Boulevard.
The computer tells Paul he will only love Virginia for a few more minutes, and the prediction is fulfilled when Virginia falls to her death from the Boulevard during a sudden storm. Paul is rescued from the storm by a cat-woman, C’mell, and awakens at home to find himself being attended by a medical robot. Before C'mell returns to check on him, Paul ponders the nature of the machine that could make such accurate predictions, and grieves for his loss.
C’mell returns in ‘The Ballad of Lost C’mell’, where Lord of the Instrumentality Jestocost helps the leader of the underpeople, an eagle-derived underperson known as E'telekeli, steal information from the Instrumentality database with the help of a telepathic link via C’mell’s mind.
C’mell falls in love with Jestocost, but he has suppressed his own feelings as a distraction, and they separate when the plan succeeds. On his deathbed, many years after C'mell has died of old age, Jestocost has a brief telepathic conversation, apparently with E'telekeli's successor, in which he learns that she never loved anyone but him. The telepathic underperson assures Jestocost that his name will be linked with C'mell's forever in history and folklore.
Finally, in ‘A Planet Named Shayol’, a man convicted of crimes against the Empire (an autonomous region of the Instrumentality) is sent for punishment on the planet Shayol, where creatures called dromozoans infect the convicts and cause them to grow new body parts. The body parts are harvested and used in medical procedures by the Instrumentality.
Four children, heirs to the throne of the Empire, are sent to the planet to prevent them committing treason when they grew up. The underperson in charge is horrified and rebels, contacting the Instrumentality, who are unaware of the Empire’s cruelty. The Instrumentality despatch ships containing robots to rescue the convicts.
The stories in this collection are deservedly part of the SF Masterworks series. The Instrumentality is one of SF’s greatest future histories, along with Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the Dune universe et al. Smith’s writing has a lyrical quality about it that raises it above the average for it’s time, and it is a tragedy the author died so prematurely at the age of 53, when there were so many more stories which could be told in his fascinating universe.
Very highly recommended.