Monday, February 11, 2013

"The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" (1962) (Rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith #3)

We've already seen (medical advance) how the Instrumentality humans beat death (with the Nostrilian drug stroon); and we've seen (military power) the Instrumentality enforce peace (with the Nostrilians defending stroon from the thief-planet. and the Instrumentality destroying the threat of Raumsog). Now we get a taste of the the third leg of Instrumentality power, the economic power of a permanent underclass used as slave/serf labor.

And let's not mince words here: although the underpeople here are related to animals, this story was published in the 1960s, around the time of the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington (1963). Unlike Steven Spielberg's recent Lincoln, which focuses on the machinations of white politicians instead of the roiling rebellion of blacks, Cordwainer Smith gives his underclass a central role, even naming the story after the cat-related C'Mell rather than the Lord of Instrumentality who helps her, Jestocost. Not so fast though: the C'Mell in the title is "Lost" and if we ask "Who loses her?" or "What is she lost from?" the story turns on us.

Lord Jestocost is a strange dude for a Lord of Instrumentality: he likes Ancient English, old tapestries, and justice, which is why he works to give more rights to the underpeople. His entry into their world is through the girlygirl C'Mell--and here's Cordwainer Smith eviscerating the "sexy cat-girl" trope as he invents it: because C'Mell is purposely bred and trained as a geisha-like courtesan, but her sexy cat girl aspects are all irrelevant to the action and even a distraction from the important thing about her, which is that she is not yet a full person under the law. It's the sf equivalent of Strom Thurmond working against civil rights for blacks but also having sex with African-American women: if you find a cat girl sexy but work to keep her an under-person, you are extra-specially terrible.

Jestocost is rather the opposite: because of his commitment to justice for underpeople, he forgoes any personal satisfaction for political satisfaction, which is one way that C'Mell ends up lost, going on to live a full life of personhood without Jestocost. (There's one great gibe against condescending reformers here, when Jestocost meets C'Mell later and makes a joke about the cat-people having litters; which is true, C'Mell admits, but even though her family looks inhuman and strange to him, she loves her children as much as any human loves theirs.)

Presaging William Gibson's tendency to make the big action happen off-screen, Cordwainer Smith shows us all the prologue and the epilogue to the great underpeople civil rights movement: the oppressed underpeople, the conspiracy between C'Mell and Jestocost, their heist of important information, the post-negotiation peace. But we never see the actual marches and negotiations.

Which raises an interesting lacuna here and some questions. First, while Jestocost and C'Mell are plotting, there's a third entity, a strange telepathic presence who remains mysterious here. (In Nostrilia, we learn more about this presence.) Here, E'Telekeli is the mastermind behind the whole info heist, the one who rides in on C'Mell into the sanctum of the Instrumentality and who stores the info called up by Jestocost. So in a very real way, the mechanism of rebellion remains off-screen and fantastical.

But second, why do we never see the rebellion/movement in action? Is it because picturing such a movement would involve some depressing compromise of justice? (I mean, for every C'Mell/Dubois, there's got to be a Booker T. Washington giving an "Atlanta Exposition Speech," about how underpeople don't need all the rights in the world.) Is it because Smith can't picture a successful underclass rebellion? As a technique, I love skipping scenes, bringing us up to the edge of world-historical action and forcing us to imagine it or take it for granted. But what if we can't actually imagine that event?

1 comment:

  1. There weren't any marches, still less negotiations. Remember, the Instrumentality is Chinese, not American: marches, however peaceful, would be met by tanks, as at Tiananmen Square, except they wouldn't even get started because there's no way for would-be marchers to communicate with one another except face to face. Remember what happens to Vomact in Norstrilia. The E'telekeli probably uses his information to blackmail or persuade individual Lords, and then the changes just happen.