Sunday, January 1, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #15: Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith

Smith, Cordwainer. "Scanners Live in Vain." Fantasy Book, Vol. 1, No. 6, January 1950.

This article is part of my attempt to read the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories here. I am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:    9.14/10
My Rating:         9/10

"Martel was angry."

In the distant future, as humans explore the galaxy and settle on other planets, special provisions must be made for space travel. Namely, selected humans must undergo a procedure that transforms them into scanners. A scanner must be present during space travel, as they are the ones who carry the burdens of flight, who must remain awake to properly steer and who suffer the torturous pains of space. It is the presence of these scanners that enables the colonization of other planets, and scanners are therefore held in high esteem, as these men sacrifice themselves and a comfortable life for the progress of humanity. Yet the procedure to become a scanner is drastic, as most senses must be severed from the brain, while the body must be partially mechanized, so that scanners become more machine-like, and less than human. Scanners can occasionally "cranch," a process that allows them to reconnect with their senses and become more human, but only for a limited time.

As protagonist Martel is cranching, an emergency call is put out to all scanners not in outer space, and a meeting reveals that a man named Adam Stone claims to have solved the problem of the pains of space travel. If this were true, scanners would no longer be needed. A senior scanner insists that it is a lie, and proposes that the man be assassinated. Martel is immediately outraged, but is the only cranching scanner at the meeting, so cannot vote, and his emotional appeals become almost vulgar among the mechanized and rational men. The vote goes by way of murder, and a cranching Martel vows to intercept the chosen assassin, but must proceed as an emotional, sense-filled human against a powerful, cyber human.

A unique and formidable story, particularly for the period. Smith gives us a world in which humans separated from their senses, from what essentially makes them human, are over-rational machines, and hence notions of morality have been erased. Most of these scanners are rationalizing murder for self-preservation, and even those that vote against the assassination do so not out of a feeling of right and wrong, but with cold reasoning, and nonetheless stand aside when the verdict to murder is reached. Only the cranching human is willing to sacrifice himself for what he believes, emotionally and rationally, to be the right thing.

The technology in "Scanners Live in Vain" is fascinating. There is a cold logic to space travel, and a cold acceptance of these mechanized humans. The story imagines a dirty, unromantic space travel, unlike much of the facile forms of travel found in early sci-fi stories. Technology is a human necessity, as space travel is needed for humans to survive and to evolve, but the increase on our reliance on technology makes us less human. Technology as presented in the story is more believable than the technology presented in stories published a decade later, as there is purpose to the technology presented, and much of it is grittily pragmatic, even unattractive, such as the machines that are attached to the torsos of these men, and the entire cranching experience. There is even a precursor to texting/messaging, as scanners use "tablets" to communicate with one another over distances, and even use a form of shorthand not unlike texters of present day. Without the emojis, thankfully.

It is interesting to note that the story is set up as a kind of paradox. Martel is presented to us in his mechanized scanner form, prior to cranching, and yet the first sentence is "Martel was angry," introducing the character with a high emotion. Clearly Martel is on the verge of change, his humanity already revolting against the machine that he has become.

I first read this as a kid in one of the sci-fi anthologies that got me reading sci-fi anthologies: First Voyages (Martin H. Greenberg, Damon Knight, Joseph D. Olander, eds, Avon, May 1981). I clearly recall reading and being amazed by this story. I think for me it was quite unique, and I genuinely felt for the character who would soon be without purpose. The story holds up incredibly well, and my first re-read three decades later was nearly as intense. Different in an adult's eye, but still quite impactful.

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