“The Lady Who Sailed the Soul,” Cordwainer Smith, 1960 – A young girl of the future asks her mother if there were ever any “girl sailors” (in space) and is told the story of Helen America. The daughter of a famous feminist (“the celebrated she-man Mona Muggeridge”), the object of intense media scrutiny because of her mother’s contempt for “fathers,” and a junior scientist, Helen is a “deadly serious brunette.” After rejecting the possibility of love–as most see her as a “freak”–she falls for the sailor “Mr. Grey-no-more,” an older pilot who has been aged forty years by a recent voyage. They begin a romance and discover that they are perhaps the only two people who can appreciate the other’s sadness and difference. Believing that he’s too old for her, he tells her he plans to leave for another trip and cannot ask for her to wait for him. Unbeknownst to him, she’s become pregnant; she has an abortion to spare him the duty of marrying her and also to prevent her child from growing up without a father.
Helen tries for and qualifies for a pilot’s credentials and is allowed to pilot the ship on which Grey will be in stasis. She’ll carry out the lonely, youth-consuming mission in space, knowing that upon arrival Grey will be awakened and they’ll be reunited. They prepare her for the flight, its cramped conditions, the long passage of time alone. They warn her that the experience will be like “a month of being absolutely wide awake, on an operating table and being operated on without anesthetic, while doing some of the hardest work that mankind has ever found.” Still, she’s eager for her “work,” for the chance to try “to be herself.” She remarks: “‘This is as bad as a marriage and the stars are my bridegroom.’ The image of the sailor went across her mind, but she said nothing of him.” They warn her that she will lose her sanity for a time, that she will see herself aging, but she remains cheerfully undaunted.
During the flight, however, there is a problem with one of the sails; as if in a vision, he appears to her and the sail snaps back into place. Upon the ship’s return, Helen is recovering in the hospital, now aged to sixty, and Grey, awakened from the pod where he had slept through the entire journey, rushes to her side. The nurses on the floor misunderstand, assuming that they are meeting for the first time and have fallen in love at first sight; a nurse calls the local media outlet to spread word of “the biggest romance in history.”
In the concluding paragraphs, a mother and daughter discuss whether or not the story (which is now history) is a “romance.”
Comments: A peculiar and provocative story. A few dismissive remarks regarding the feminist mother. References the “love story” of the go-captain and wife, Dolores Oh, of another Smith story, “The Burning of the Brain.” Themes of identity, privacy, love, the body v. soul. Contains the image of her becoming somewhat part of the ship. Framing device involving the child’s question prompts the (love) story. Sometimes cited as one of the few successful sf-romance crossovers.
Excerpt: “The story ran—how did the story run? Everyone knew the reference to Helen America and Mr. Grey-no-more, but no one knew exactly how it happened. Their names were welded to the glittering timeless jewelry of romance. Sometimes they were compared to Heloise and Abelard, whose story had been found among books in a long-buried library. Other ages were to compare their life with the weird, ugly-lovely story of the Go-Captain Taliano and the Lady Dolores Oh. Out of it all, two things stood forth—their love and the image of the great sails, tissue-metal wings with which the bodies of people finally fluttered out among the stars. Mention him, and others knew her. Mention her, and they knew him. He was the first of the inbound sailors, and she was the lady who sailed The Soul. It was lucky that people lost their pictures. The romantic hero was a very young-looking man, prematurely old and still quite sick when the romance came. And Helen America, she was a freak, but a nice one: a grim, solemn, sad, little brunette who had been born amid the laughter of humanity. She was not the tall, confident heroine of the actresses who later played her. She was, however, a wonderful sailor. That much was true. And with her body and mind she loved Mr. Grey-no-more, showing a devotion which the ages can neither surpass nor forget. History may scrape off the patina of their names and appearances, but even history can do no more than brighten the love of Helen America and Mr. Grey-no-more. Both of them, one must remember, were sailors.”
“Helen America was to make her place in the history of mankind, but she started badly. The name itself was a misfortune.
No one ever knew who her father was. The officials agreed to keep the matter quiet.
Her mother was not in doubt. Her mother was the celebrated she-man Mona Muggeridge, a woman who had campaigned a hundred times for the lost cause of complete identity of the two genders. She had been a feminist beyond all limits, and when Mona Muggeridge, the one and only Miss Muggeridge, announced to the press that she was going to have a baby, that was first-class news.
Mona Muggeridge went further. She announced her firm conviction that fathers should not be identified. She proclaimed that no woman should have consecutive children with the same man, that women should be advised to pick different fathers for their children, so as to diversify and beautify the race. She capped it all by announcing that she, Miss Muggeridge, had selected the perfect father and would inevitably produce the only perfect child.
Miss Muggeridge, a bony, pompous blonde, stated that she would avoid the nonsense of marriage and family names, and that therefore the child, if a boy, would be named John America, and if a girl, Helen America.
Thus it happened that little Helen America was born with the correspondents in the press services waiting outside the delivery room. News-screens flashed the picture of a pretty three-kilogram baby. ‘It’s a girl.’ ‘The perfect child.’ ‘Who’s the dad?'”
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.