“Scanners Live in Vain,” Cordwainer Smith, 1948

Scanners Live in Vain,” Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger), 1948 – The story of a cyborg-pilot Scanner, Martel, whose senses have been reduced to sight to better suit him for space travel, i.e. to avoid the “pain of space.”  He uses a mirror to constantly monitor his bodily processes via instruments and displays on his Chestbox.  With a writing pad and elongated fingernail, he communicates by writing messages to his fellow Scanners and wife.  He can be restored, temporarily and painfully, to normal sensory perception by “cranching,” and Martel is in the process of cranching at home with his wife when the Scanners’ confraternity calls an emergency meeting.  The leader announces that a man named Adam Stone is about to reveal a discovery that will make Scanners obsolete.  According to Stone, if a ship’s walls are packed with oysters, the normals inside the ship will be spared the pain of space.

The Scanner society has dealt with the loneliness and pain of existence by forming a rigidly loyal fraternity; it is also brutally dedicated to self-preservation, and the Scanners vote to have Stone killed.  Martel, in his cranched state, and his friend Chang–who has learned over time how to pretend to appear “normal”–are the only Scanners who appear emotionally affected by the immorality of the decision.  Martel attempts to prevent the assassination; in doing so, he breaks off the fingernail he uses to communicate in order to pass for normal and thus enter the city where Stone is living.  Martel intercepts the assassin, who happens to be a friend, and defeats him, but the strain of fighting while cranched renders him unconscious.  When he awakens some time later, he learns that Stone has restored him to his original condition and is willing to do the same for the other Scanners.  Former Scanners will become the new pilots of the modified ships, preserving their group.  His friend, the would-be assassin, has died.  As his wife relates, the friend was so happy to learn of Stone’s offer that he forgot to self-monitor.

Comment: Text online. A story of exploitation, obsolescence, loneliness, and prosthesis told by a member of the Scanners’ silent, sight-based culture.  It’s possible the returning pilot can be seen as a returning soldier, now traumatized and constructed for a purpose that emotionally alienates him from society, family, and his body.  The resolution implies that reintegration is possible through technology, but only if the technology returns the Scanner to “normal.”

Wikipedia: “Part of the appeal of the story was its uniqueness, from the strange future world to the cynical ending. Robert Silverberg called it ‘one of the classic stories of science fiction’ and noted its ‘sheer originality of concept’ and its ‘deceptive and eerie simplicity of narrative.’ John J Pierce, in his introduction to the anthology The Best of Cordwainer Smith, commented the strong sense of religion it shares with Smith’s other works, likening the Code of the Scanners to the Saying of the Law in H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau.”

Author: Wikipedia: “Cordwainer Smith…was the pseudonym used by American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (July 11, 1913–August 6, 1966) for his science fiction works.  Linebarger was a noted East Asia scholar and expert in psychological warfare.”

Author: Wikipedia: “Cordwainer Smith…was the pseudonym used by American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (July 11, 1913–August 6, 1966) for his science fiction works.  Linebarger was a noted East Asia scholar and expert in psychological warfare…Linebarger was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father was Paul M. W. Linebarger, a lawyer and political activist with close ties to the leaders of the Chinese revolution of 1911. As a result of those connections, Linebarger’s godfather was Sun Yat-sen, considered the father of Chinese nationalism.” See also Carol McGuirk’s “The Rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith” in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Jul., 2001), pp. 161-200.

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About jennre

Lifelong sf fan, first-time blogger
This entry was posted in 1946-1959, automata/robots, communication, disability, emotions/intimacy/empathy, exiles/"home"/displacement, favorites, gender, love/family/children, masculinity, mechanization, progress/obsolescence, religion/soul/spirituality, senses/space, sex/reproduction/sterility, the body, war/soldiers. Bookmark the permalink.

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