Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tripping Cyborgs and Organ Farms: The Fictions of Cordwainer Smith - Steve Silberman

"Calling a magazine “off-trail” may not be the most felicitous way for an aspiring author to introduce himself, but it was understandable if the boyish professor at Johns Hopkins University — who coyly described his work for the Pentagon as being “a visitor to small wars” — felt defensive about his novelette. Three years earlier, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, the most literary-minded of the pulps, had rejected Scanners, calling it “too extreme” for a periodical that regularly featured marauding robots, exploding spaceships, and alien reptile overlords on its cover. Other editors seemed to agree.

It’s not hard to see why. Fifteen years before the word cyborg was invented, and with no preliminary exposition, the story plunged the reader into the passions, intimacies, and life-and-death conflicts of cybernetically augmented human beings. Man-machine hybrids had appeared before in fiction (including a celebrated tin woodman whose total-body prosthesis lacked a heart, and the robotically resurrected actress in C. L. Moore’s groundbreaking feminist sci-fi tale “No Woman Born”), but Linebarger’s central character — a courageous cyborg named Martel — was both a sleeker machine and a more acutely rendered human character than readers of the pulps were used to. Martel and his fellow cyborgs, known as “Scanners,” had their own lexicon of shop talk, expressive body language, code of ethics, professional guild, rousing songs, and finely honed sense of discipline. They were more like Marines than robots."

4 out of 5

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