Monday, February 4, 2013

"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" (1961) (Rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith #1)

In the science fiction community, we all know that Cordwainer Smith has the best name. True, that's not his real name--that's Paul Linebarger, PhD in political science, and author of Psychological Warfare. Okay, fine, he's got a fun pseudonym and an interesting biography--Sun Yat-Sen was his godfather, he was friends with Chiang Kai-shek--but how are his stories?

That's what I plan to find out in my ongoing project to read all of his 30-odd published stories, most of which take place in his future history called The Instrumentality of Man, and all of which are republished in The Rediscovery of Man. First up, the awesomely named...

"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" (1961) (pages 355-374)
Synopsis (and spoilers): Benjacomin Bozart is a thief from the thief-planet of Viola Siderea and he's been tasked with the biggest heist of all time: breaking into Old North Australia--also known as the planet Norstrilia--and stealing the life-giving drug santaclara (or stroon, in its refined state). Bozart starts this heist by interrogating a Norstrilian child who writes out a clue about Norstrilian defense--"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons"--before Bozart kills him. Bozart then goes about the rest of the heist--reporting to his supervisors on Viola Siderea and mortgaging the entire planet's productivity to get the heist in gear.

During this same time, the story occasionally shows us who Mother Hitton is and how her Littul Kittons are part of the defense. Apparently, the Kittons are mink that have been bred for psychosis and Norstrilia protects itself by blanketing nearby space with this irresistible psychosis. On top of that, because they have a monopoly on the life-giving santaclara, the Norstrilians also have a huge secret intelligence network, and Bozart's search for information on the "Kittons" have triggered the network. So all of his underworld contacts are really Norstrilian agents who are leading him to his death. And the already rich Norstrilia ends up with a mortgage for the entire thief planet, Viola Siderea.

Thoughts and analysis: There's so much weird going on here. First, the story is told in omniscient third, a POV that has fallen out of favor these days, especially for stories of this length. In 20 pages, we get Benjacomin's plot, Katherine Hitton's preparation, the secret plots and thoughts of several secret agents, and a little history of Norstrilia.

Second, there's the extraordinary lengths the Norstrilians go to in order to kill Benjacomin Bozart with projected mink thoughts. After Bozart kills the young Norstrilian boy, his actions are almost all directed by Norstrilian agents, whose one goal is to get him into Norstrilian space. Considering the economics of the whole thing--it must be expensive to wake the mink up and get them to project their psychosis--you'd think it would be easier for someone to just poison Bozart before he gets there. (Though, from a legal standpoint, crime prevention-via-death penalty is probably still not accepted in the Instrumentality future. And getting Bozart to sign away years of his criminal planet is a real nice side-effect. Instead of stealing, the thief planet ends up getting stolen--through completely legal means.)

Third, the story matter is unmistakably Cordwainer Smith territory: a secret war carried out with projected mental states and an intelligence apparatus that gets triggered by a planted shibboleth. There's no sentimentality about the thief, who is himself a master of mood manipulation, especially skilled at hiding his own moods, but never a romantic figure.

Fourth, Cordwainer tends to keep his sentences real crisp here, allowing the content of the story to carry the punch. So, for instance, we get simple but nonsense sentences like "One of her weapons snored. She turned it over." Eventually--about ten pages later--that sentence will make sense, when we get the information that her weapons are her psychotic mink. But many of the sentences don't have any delay in making sense. We know what it means when we read "Benjacomin, trained thief that he was, did not recognize the policeman." It means that from the opening gambit, Benjacomin is going to die.

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