The Best Science Fiction Stories Ever Written: “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith

WHO WROTE IT: Cordwainer Smith (real name Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger).

Cordwainer Smith Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger Scanners Live in Vain
Smith with his daughter in the 1940s.

Smith was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1913. Thanks to his father’s political connections, Smith’s godfather was Sun Yat-sen, the (in)famous Chinese nationalist. The young Cordwainer (an archaic word for a shoemaker or leather-worker) lost the sight of one of his eyes at a very young age, and wore a glass prosthetic the rest of his life. The boy was bounced around from country to country as his father moved him and his mother to France and Germany. Smith had acquired some familiarity with six languages by the time he turned 18.

Smith served as a lieutenant in the US intelligence forces during World War II, eventually being sent to China in 1943 to coordinate counterintelligence activities against the Japanese. Smith became deeply interested in China and East Asia during his time there, and was a close confidant of Chiang Kai-shek. After the war, Smith became a professor of Asiatic studies at Johns Hopkins. He was involved peripherally in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, rising to the rank of major and becoming one of the US armed force’s foremost experts on “gray” and “black” propaganda and psychological warfare.

WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED: Smith submitted the story I’m reviewing today, “Scanners Live in Vain” to a small, obscure Los Angeles sci-fi magazine called Fantasy Book in 1948, and it was published in 1950. It might have languished there in obscurity but for the fact that Frederik Pohl, one of the giants of American science fiction, also had a story in that edition of Fantasy Book. Pohl was blown away by Smith’s prose, and couldn’t believe the man who wrote it was a newbie. (He thought it must be the pseudonym of Theodore Sturgeon, Robert A. Heinlein, or Isaac Asimov…high praise, high praise indeed for a writer’s first story!) Pohl boosted Smith’s career into orbit when he anthologized “Scanners Live in Vain” in Beyond the End of Time in 1952. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Andrew Timothy Post sci-fi writer Cordwainer Smith Frederik Pohl 1952 Beyond the End of Time Scanners Live in Vain

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: What’s cheaper and smarter than a robot, but more immune to pain than a human?

A Scanner.

The year is 6000 A.D. Humanity has colonized the stars. But there’s a price. It’s called “The First Effect.” For some reason, on long-haul interstellar journeys, the “Great Pain of Space” overwhelms human neurological systems, inducing such awful pain that any human who feels it commits suicide. Human beings, in order to travel through space, must be put into cold sleep. The crew of the ship that must remain awake are called Habermans: convicts, criminals, low-lives, and other such rabble, the rakings and scrapings of society, surgically altered against their will. Their brains have been severed from all sensory input except the eyes. They cannot feel, hear, taste, or smell. While this procedure renders Habermans immune to the Pain of Space, it also robs of them of their humanity. You can imagine how psychologically damaging it would be to exist perpetually in a state of almost total sensory deprivation. You can also imagine how dull and under-stimulated a human being in that state would be. Almost like a zombie. As it is, Habermans must be constantly tuned and readjusted and monitored with a variety of cybernetic implants, dials, sensors, and regulatory machinery. Think of them as zombie cyborgs.

Andrew Timothy Post sci-fi writer zombie cyborg Scanners Live in Vain
Pictured: cute, fluffy kittens, because the images of “zombie cyborgs” I found on Google were too disturbing.

Now, as bad as that sounds, there are people who undergo this hideous procedure voluntarily. These people are known as Scanners. Scanners supervise the Habermans and hold a respected position in society, even if they are just as gross-looking and weird as the Habermans. Scanners have special privileges. They can monitor themselves, for one thing. They can also do something called cranching—plugging themselves into a machine that allows them to feel, taste, smell, and hear again. Life’s a little easier for Scanners due to the cranch, but even so, it’s a horribly lonely and grotesque sort of life. Scanners tend to clump together in highly elite, separatist, close-knit societies. (No Scanner has ever killed another Scanner.) Knowing how vital their function is to human civilization (“uniting the Earths of Mankind”), and how lionized they are as a result, they’re not afraid to throw their weight around, either. The Scanner mantra is “no ships go” if a Scanner is cheated or wronged somehow.

Andrew Timothy Post writer science fiction Cordwainer Smith Scanners Live in Vain
Imagine how much money it would cost to keep a spaceship sitting in port during a Scanner strike…

The protagonist of “Scanners Live in Vain” is a Scanner named Martel, who is cut off even from his fellow Scanners by his unusual situation: he is married to a normal human woman. He is experiencing quite a bit of marital difficulty, as you might expect. He is cranching at home and trying to relax and maintain some semblance of humanity when he is summoned to a mysterious emergency meeting of the Scanner guild, where he learns that a human, Adam Stone, is about to unveil a method of insulating spaceships from the Great Pain of Space…and that would mean that SCANNERS LIVE IN VAIN (roll credits!). The Scanners, unwilling to lose their exalted status, plot to kill Stone. Martel disagrees, and a desperate race to save Stone’s life begins.

BIG QUESTIONS IT ANSWERS: While superficially the plot bears a great deal of resemblance to Vonda N. McIntyre’s story “Aztecs” (which I reviewed a short time ago), “Scanners Live in Vain” takes a slightly different tack. Instead of focusing on how much humanity a person would be willing to sacrifice to gain the stars, as McIntyre’s story does, Smith’s tale goes the other way: what are we willing to give up to restore our humanity? While most Scanners enjoy their exalted status, I get the sense that Martel is sick and fed up of being an insensate hunk of meat, and is willing to give up his position in society if it means feeling his wife’s touch.

We see examples of Martel’s disregard for his Scanner status sprinkled throughout the text. Later in the story, Martel must sneak into the human city where Stone lives in order to save him, and in order to pass without being detected, he must break off the specially formed fingernail on his hand that allows him to write on the board on his chest. This fingernail is symbolic of his venerated status in society as a Scanner, and Martel sacrifices it to prevent Adam Stone from being murdered and preserve some chance of getting his humanity back. Ultimately, Martel’s five senses are more important to him than stature or reverence in society. It’s a powerful message.

A powerful, hunger-inducing message. Excuse me while I microwave a snack.

WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT: I was just getting into classic sci-fi when I read “Scanners Live in Vain,” years and years ago. I had a sort of rigid dichotomy in my mind back then. People were people, and machines were machines, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Oh yeah, sure, you might see somebody with a robotic arm, but that’s about as much of a gray area that existed between machine and man. Cordwainer Smith came along and smashed that little juxtaposition into little bitty pieces. I had never before contemplated the idea of changing a living, breathing, fleshly person into a machine: severing nerves, installing sensors. I had never before realized the extent to which one’s humanity could be reduced, even without the introduction of metal body parts or cybernetic implants. The idea of taking a healthy, well-adjusted human being and molding it into an unfeeling machine-zombie is a fascinating and vaguely horrifying idea to me, even to this day. (That’s probably why the 1999 horror film Virus is one of my favorites). I love science fiction stories that broaden my intellectual and philosophical horizons, and this book is one of them.

Andrew Timothy Post science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith Scanners Live in Vain Virus 1999

Also, Cordwainer Smith does not write like any other sci-fi writer around. As Frederik Pohl pointed out:

In his stories, which were a wonderful and inimitable blend of a strange, raucous poetry and a detailed technological scene, we begin to read of human beings in worlds so far from our own in space in time that they were no longer quite Earth (even when they were the third planet out from Sol), and the people were no longer quite human, but something perhaps better, certainly different.

Wikipedia also notes:

Smith’s stories are unusual, sometimes being written in narrative styles closer to traditional Chinese stories than to most English-language fiction, as well as reminiscent of the Genji tales of Lady Murasaki.

Smith’s stories are simply a joy to read for these reasons.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Like stories about far-future sci-fi? About  people being surgically modified against their will and turned into slaves? Brain jamming? Space dragons that drive starship crews insane? Cat people? Smith has a talent for turning the strangest and seemingly campiest of premises (fighting space dragons with cats? Seriously?) into the most serious and thought-provoking science fiction. Nowhere is this more apparent than “Scanners Live in Vain.”

WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: I first read this story in one of my favorite books of all time (and one of my most cherished possessions): The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929-1964. There are still copies to be found in used bookstores and online. Pick one up for yourself and get lost in the very best science fiction that humanity’s ever created. You won’t regret it. This book made me what I am today: a wannabe sci-fi writer, determined to add his name to the pantheon of the greats someday.

Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One 1929-1964 Andrew Timothy Post


Tripping Cyborgs and Organ Farms: the Fictions of Cordwainer Smith

Cordwainer Smith’s Wikipedia page