“Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” Cordwainer Smith, 1961 — In the “first years of the Rediscovery of Man, when the Instrumentality dug deep in the treasury, reconstructing the old cultures, the old languages, and even the old troubles,” Paul and Virginia tour the difference created by “ancient civilizations” now “rising like great land masses out of the sea of the past.” It’s an exciting time, heady with the prospect of “individuality,” of building a “more imperfect world” with the safety devices and the sureness of immortality “turned off.” Novelties abound: They go to a hospital and come out “French”–complete with French memories and knowledge of the language. He uses a postage stamp; they try to understand “money.” He looks through an “eye-machine” to observe cholera being released in Tasmania. Delighted, he watches the people dance in the streets “now that they [do] not have to be protected any more.” They wander through the streets of the faux-past and fancy that they’re falling in love, but Virginia doubts it, not knowing if it’s real.
They venture into the seedier areas of town and encounter a titillating gen-engineered cat-woman (C’Mell), a member of the lower class that provides cheap labor for the Instrumentality. Eventually, they meet a man named Macht who charms Virginia and tells them of a mythic computer (Abba-Dingo), reputed to be able to foretell the future. The computer, one of the few phenomena the Instrumentality has never been able to explain, can only be reached by walking up the dangerous Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, where they have an authentic brush with death.
Comments: Themes: Tourists, far future, choice, individuality, history, identity, authenticity, the past as a foreign country, death, control/chaos, culture/subculture, genetic engineering. See Le Guin’s comments on the story on Wikipedia. Read in The Norton Anthology of Science Fiction. A review at A Trout in the Milk: “Madness as Allegory: Cordwainer Smith’s ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” which views the story as an allegory for architecture. The review discusses the story in context of modernism/post-modernism–humanity under the perfect order of the Instrumentality has become a too efficient, god-like “form”; thus, the Instrumentality creates a post-modern pastiche in order to restore a human-scale sense of meaning. The world has become “new” by making it “old.” Also see the review at Dynamic Subspace, which points out the story’s use of humuculi, hierarchies, and the Great Chain of Being.
Wikipedia: “‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ was inspired in part by a painting from his childhood The Storm by Pierre-Auguste Cot, of two young lovers fleeing along a darkening path. Additionally, the names of the two principal characters, together with the conscious attempt to revive a French culture, recall the 18th century French novel Paul et Virginie. According to his widow and second wife, it was also partly about his first wife’s attraction to another man.”
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.