Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Golden The Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" (1959) (Rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith #2)

"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" is considered something of a classic--for instance, Gardner Dozois published it in his 1992 Modern Classics anthology. By contrast, "Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" is not so classic, though at first glance, it tells a very similar story.

"Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" (1959) (p. 215-221)
Synopsis: The space dictator Raumsog threatens Earth, so the Instrumentality--which appears as a rather regular boardroom--decides to send out one of their Golden Ships, a giant ship that they usually store in nonspace and only take out to fight off exceptional enemies. Only the Golden Ship is actually mostly made of foam, without weapons or armor, used primarily to intimidate enemies and tie up their navies. The real damage against Raumsog is done by a small ship which contains biological weapons; a monitor (human) that will destroy the ship if it deviates; a "chronopathic idiot" who can move the ship in time; and a psychic who creates a quantum field of bad luck. After the short, brutal war, the Golden Ship pilot realizes that his contribution has given him a strange feeling of pleasure; while the people who actually did the killing get their minds wiped.

Thoughts, analysis: If the omniscience of "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" has gone out of favor--following two main characters and a few minor characters--the omniscience of "Golden The Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" is downright illegible by today's standards: in six pages we get

  1. a prologue that tells us there was a war; 
  2. a board meeting of the Instrumentality where the chairman proposes to unmothball one Golden Ship; 
  3. a war cabinet of Raumsog where he wonders what they'll do with such a big ship; 
  4. Captain Tedesco, a dissolute who likes to pump electricity into the pleasure centers of his brain, who captains the Golden Ship in its sham war; 
  5. Prince Lovaduck who captains the real attack ship, with its monitor, chronopathic idiot, and psionic talent--a little girl who is a "class three etiological interference";
  6. the story of Lovaduck's attack;
  7. Raumsog's planet's destruction;
  8. Tedesco returning to civilian life and no longer needing the electrical stimulation;
  9. Lovaduck's mindwipe and reward;
  10. a journalist's attempt to get the story of the Golden Ship from one of Raumsog's survivors after their memories have been "discoordinated."
Six pages! I've seen comparisons between Cordwainer Smith and traditional storytelling--fairytales, folktales--and it seems apt. Philip K. Dick could cram this much craziness into a story--time travel, offense use of jinx powers, a psy ops campaign with a giant but useless ship--but he would tell the story in limited third person or even first, sticking close to one person and that person's perceptual bias/madness. Smith has no such interest in limiting the reader, who gets a wide angle view of everyone else's perceptual failures.

Curiously, this earlier work seems a little more prone to use strange words to get an effect. For instance, that "class three etiological interference" when he could just note that she's a jinx or prone to bad luck. Calling her an "etiological interference" sounds strange; noting that she's "class three" reminds us that we're in a different frame of reference.

And yet, what really comes across here more than in "Mother Hitton's" is how arbitrary all this power is. The Instrumentality has psychics and biological weapons and psy ops capabilities, but it's all in support of a system which is repeatedly called corrupt, a system which routinely reworks people's memories, and which nearly depopulates an entire planet because of one enemy. Cordwainer doesn't at all try to defend this system as moral or correct, but simply notes that, when push comes to shove, the Instrumentality will push hard. Prince Lovaduck is left knowing he's a hero, but not knowing why, which is pretty much our position--he's done daring things, but has he done good things?

1 comment:

  1. You have to understand who Cordwainer Smith is, and where he comes from, where he spent the formative years of his life to understand this. He spent a LOT of time in China, back in the 40's and the 50's.
    Think about the things that the emperors did, and would do.
    This fits into that model of rule rather well.