Monday, April 11, 2011

Instrumentality of Mankind

"The Instrumentality was a self-perpetuating body of men with enormous powers and a strict code. Each was a plenum of the low, the middle, and the high justice. Each could do anything he found necessary or proper to maintain the Instrumentality and keep the peace between the worlds. But if he made a mistake or committed a wrong—ah, then, it was suddenly different. Any Lord could put another Lord to death in an emergency, but he was assured of death and disgrace himself if he assumed this responsibility. The only difference between ratification and repudiation came in the fact that Lords who killed in an emergency and were proved wrong were marked down on a very shameful list, while those who killed other Lords rightly (as later examination might prove) were listed on a very honorable list, but still killed. With three Lords, the situation was different. Three Lords made an emergency court; if they acted together, acted in good faith, and reported to the computers of the Instrumentality, they were exempt from punishment, though not from blame or even reduction to civilian status. Seven Lords, or all the Lords on a given planet at a given moment, were beyond any criticism except that of a dignified reversal of their actions should a later ruling prove them wrong.
"This was all the business of the Instrumentality. The Instrumentality had the perpetual slogan 'Watch, but do not govern; stop war, but do not wage it; protect, but do not control; and first, survive!'"
Drunkboat, by Cordwainer Smith
Cordwainer Smith's amazing The Instrumentality of Mankind remains a profoundly moving, gorgeously evoked and powerfully well thought-out vision of a future we'll probably never know. Perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps not. 

Consider this scene from When the People Fell:

"Can you imagine a rain of people through an acid fog? Can you imagine thousands and thousands of human bodies, without weapons, overwhelming the unconquerable monsters? Can you—"
"Look, sir," interrupted the reporter.
"Don't interrupt me! You ask me silly questions. I tell you I saw the Goonhogo itself. I saw it take Venus. Now ask me about that!"
The reporter had called to get an old man's reminiscences about bygone ages. He did not expect Dobyns Bennett to flare up at him.
Dobyns Bennett thrust home the psychological advantage he had gotten by taking the initiative. "Can you imagine showhices in their parachutes, a lot of them dead, floating out of a green sky? Can you imagine mothers crying as they fell? Can you imagine people pouring down on the poor helpless monsters?"
Mildly, the reporter asked what showhices were.
"That's old Chinesian for children," said Dobyns Bennett. "I saw the last of the nations burst and die, and you want to ask me about fashionable clothes and things. Real history never gets into the books. It's too shocking. I suppose you were going to ask me what I thought of the new striped pantaloons for women!"
"No," said the reporter, but he blushed. The question was in his notebook and he hated blushing.

Or this scene from Scanners Live in Vain:

Within the Downport, Martel had less trouble than he thought. He draped his aircoat over his shoulder so that it concealed the instruments. He took up his scanning mirror, and made up his face from the inside, by adding tone and animation to his blood and nerves until the muscles of his face glowed and the skin gave out a healthy sweat. That way he looked like an ordinary man who had just completed a long night flight.
After straightening out his clothing, and hiding his Tablet within his jacket, he faced the problem of what to do about the Talking Finger. If he kept the nail, it would show him to be a Scanner. He would be respected, but he would be identified. He might be stopped by the guards whom the Instrumentality had undoubtedly set around the person of Adam Stone. If he broke the nail—but he couldn't! No Scanner in the history of the Confraternity had ever willingly broken his nail. That would be Resignation, and there was no such thing. The only way out, was in the Up-and-Out! Martel put his finger to his mouth and bit off the nail. He looked at the now-queer finger, and sighed to himself.
This isn't the usual sci-fi stuff that was getting cranked-out during the Fifties and Sixties. It was, and remains, extremely unique. Cordwainer Smith created a stunning future history filled with very peculiar planets like Viola Siderea, Shayol, or Norstrilia--the source of the immortality drug Stroon. He gave us Scanners who were tragic, early-adopters of transhumanistic cyber-augmentation and cryonic preservation (Cold Sleep) who found themselves faced with obsolescence. He gave us Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, The Dead Lady of Clown Town, Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons,  The Ballad of Lost C'Mell and the Underpeople--those people who were raised up from domesticated animals to become a genetically engineered slave-class that was a direct continuation of H. G. Well's Doctor Moreau's great work, in spirit and conception, if not in literal fact. But then there are other parallels with Wells, and with The Island of Doctor Moreau through-out Smith's work.

The stories of Smith's Rediscovery of Man, the Instrumentality, and Norstrilia are amazingly packed chock-full of incredible ideas, ingenuity and a very different sort of idealism than the run of the mill. Smith's Instrumentality had a pseudo-medieval air about it--they were the Lords & Ladies of the Instrumentality after all, but unlike Herbert's Dune or Silverberg's Majipoor, Smith took things in a very different direction. The Instrumentality had a very real purpose and every means necessary to carry it out. They are all-powerful, as a collective, and charged with ensuring mankind's survival. A bit arbitrary at times, they are benign overlords who can resort to the most callous brutality when needed. But they maintain an ultra-strict code and any one of them can put another to death if need be. They police themselves as much as they police the worlds they rule over. The quote at the start of this post from Drunkboat spells it all out pretty nicely. These aren't doddering incompetents or political appointees within a celestial bureaucracy--the Lords and Ladies of Humanspace the Instrumentality can and will do anything they deem necessary to preserve the status-quo and ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. They are not distant figures by any means. They are each known and well-defined by their personal records and their foibles as much as any celebrity.
"The Lords of the Instrumentality who are here on Fomalhaut III. There is the Lord Femtiosex, who is just and without pity ... There is the Lady Goroke ... who has shown kindnesses to underpeople, as long as the kindnesses were lawful ones. And there is the Lady Arabella Underwood, whose justice no man can understand."

The Dead Lady of Clown Town, by Cordwainer Smith

You get the sense that these are very real people. The Instrumentality seems very abstract, almost utopian in some ways, but at the same time ultra pragmatic and very much rooted in the Machiavellian application of Realpolitik on a vast scale. But then Paul Linebarger--Cordwainer Smith--also wrote the book on Psychological Warfare. No joke.

Cordwainer Smith was an original, someone who went off in his own direction and dared to do things differently--and often managed to do them superbly. Memorably. Uniquely.

One of the best analyses of the Instrumentality, and Cordwainer Smith's science fiction altogether, is the essay Cats, Cruelty and Children. One of the few websites, and the only one maintained by Smith's own daughter is: http://www.cordwainer-smith.com/ There just aren't that many sites devoted to Cordwainer Smith at present. He appears to have been forgotten, overlooked, like so many other wonderful authors who now languish in obscurity so that we can have such enduring treasures as the latest angsty teen vampire epic.

If you know of any really good Cordwainer Smith sites, drop us a line. We'd love to find a few more.

 Smith re-wrote the story of Jean D'Arc in The Dead Lady of Clown Town. (In that story D'Joan is one of the underpeople, having been uplifted/Moreau-ized into a humanoid from a dog. One suspects a sly joke in this, but it might just be the proximity to Rabelais...do you smell mustard?) Smith lifted inspiration like a drunkard's goblet from Rabelais in his story Drunkboat. And he took inspiration for Alpha Ralpha Boulevard from a classic painting The Storm (La TempĂȘte) bFrench artist Pierre Auguste Cot .

Since the painting is in the Public Domain, here, have a look at it for yourself--
Classical painting. Rabelais-ian waggery. Psychological Warfare. A gift for language that made Jack Vance jealous. A powerful imagination that just didn't fit into the preconceptions or expectations of the prevailing genre restraints. All that and more made it possible for Cordwainer Smith to create a body of work like no one else's. He opened a doorway into a future history that saw humanity arise from the fallout and ashes of a nuclear apocalypse to produce the jwindz--the perfect ones--and go on from there to colonize space, discover Planoforming , and eventually usher in a new Renaissance as they undertake the Rediscovery of Man, in the course of which Smith manages to introduce us to a reconceptualization of Jean D'Arc as a dog-woman who gets crucified for her troubles. A guild-like confraternity of space-faring cyborgs who are forced to face the fact that they're out of date, that technology has moved on and left them behind. An animal-derived underclass that handles all the messy hands-on labor for a population of tourists who can look forward to a 400-year life-span thanks to the limit set down by the Instrumentality. An immortality drug that is pumped out of bloated mutant sheep. Telepathic maniac minks used as a security system. Alien dromozoans that flit about like tiny flashes of light, leaving behind new organs or limbs, and removing waste from their human charges.  



This is one author anyone interested in Humanspace Empires really ought to read.

EDIT: You can get The Game of Rat and Dragon from Project Gutenberg. They have it under Books by Linebarger, Paul Myron Anthony...


  1. Nice overview. I'm a fan of Smith's--as much a fan of the ideas he's working with as the actually writing sometimes. For those interested in Smith's wordlay with naming and whatnot, The Concordance to Cordwainer Smith by Anthony Lewis is a great reference.

  2. Very nice look at a now often overlooked pulp master. I read Nostrilla recently and Smith has sept into Humanspace a bit...

  3. Thanks, I was unfamiliar with the author. I will now rectify that.

  4. @Trey: We'll look for the Concordance. Smith was amazing. One of the most unique voices in science fiction. Still. Ever.

    @The Drune: Norstrilia is great stuff. Will there be Stroon in Humanspace? Poor mutant hmelu getting siphoned by tinaliya...

    @Craig: You're welcome--hope you enjoy your explorations of Smith's work. There are so many great stories to choose from...


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