TT: Downtrodden, Not Uplifted

JANE: So, last time we decided we were going to talk about Cordwainer Smith’s underpeople.  Why don’t you explain what these are?

Underpeople Tales

Alan: Ah! The underpeople! They are hugely important in Smith’s stories. As the name implies, they are second class citizens, not quite people. They are descended (or perhaps “manufactured” would be a better word) in some mysterious, and never explained, way from animal precursors.

JANE: “Manufactured” is definitely the correct term.  Precisely how the underpeople are created is one of the many ways that Cordwainer Smith breaks the rules.  Most SF writers would at least make hand-waving motions indicating science-in-action when talking about how these animal-human creatures were created.  Terms like “gene-splicing” or “activation of dormant genetic potentials” would be used, and we would meet scientists who create underpeople.

Instead, Smith just gives them to us, and isn’t even consistent in how they are described.  Some are more like animals, some nearly indistinguishable from humans.  What is important is that something in their animal nature makes them ideal for certain tasks.

ALAN: Quite so.  A very good example of this is B’dikkat, the underperson who is so important to the prisoners on the planet named Shayol.

Just as an aside, the names of the underpeople are all prefixed with a single letter that indicates their ancestry. The B’ in B’dikkat tells us that he is descended from bovine stock.

JANE: B’dikkat’s bovine qualities make him perfect for his rather horrible job.  I can’t say what that job is without providing too much of a spoiler for the story, but B’dikkat’s bovine instinct for the preservation of the herd plays a large role, as does his lack of an inclination to kill.  One of the major elements of the story’s climax could not occur if B’dikkat was not a cattle-derived underperson.  That Cordwainer Smith can make the reader believe in B’dikkat’s nature is part of his genius.

ALAN: The underpeople always maintain many of their animal characteristics, and it’s those attributes that make them so useful to the Lords of the Instrumentality in maintaining a society in which the majority of humans do very little useful.

Perhaps the most important underperson is the cat person C’mell.  She appears in several stories. C’mell is named after Linebarger’s favourite cat, Melanie. Like you and me, Cordwainer Smith was a cat person.

JANE: Indeed he was, “real” cats are crucial in an earlier story in his future history’s timeline: “The Game of Rat and Dragon.”

As to C’mell, “important” is a deceptive word.  She is definitely a key figure in several stories, including “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” and the novel Norstilia, but she would not consider herself important.  Importance belongs to D’Joan, whose tragic story is told in “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” and to the mysterious and powerful E’telekeli, one of the central figures in Norstrilia.

ALAN: Nevertheless, C’mell has a pivotal role to play. She is a “girlygirl” at Earthport where she takes care of off-world visitors. I remember her as a high class call girl, but when I re-read the novel to prepare for this tangent I discovered that my memory had embroidered her role a bit – really she has more in common with a geisha.

C’mell has little choice in her role. None of the underpeople do, and they resent being cast as second class citizens. Here Smith is drawing clear parallels with the American civil rights movement. He sees such unrest leading to open revolt and so does Lord Jestacost of the Instrumentality.

Jestacost also appears in many of Smith’s stories.  (I am firmly of the opinion that Jestacost is actually Smith himself.) He seems an untypical Lord in that he is more open-minded than most, more aware of what is happening around him. He is not blind to the implications and consequences of the actions of the Instrumentality, and he works actively to manipulate events.

JANE: Ooh…  It’s always dangerous to equate a character and the author.  Moreover, it diminishes the story by making a vital character into nothing more than a mouthpiece for the author’s opinions.

Jestacost has a reason for being the way he is.  His birth is a direct reaction to the events in “The Dead Lady of Clown Town.”  His mother, Lady Goroke – herself a member of the  Instrumentality – says near the end of the story:

“I’m going to have a child, and I’m going back to Manhome to have it.  And I’m going to do the genetic coding myself.  I’m going to call him Jestocost.  That’s one of the Ancient Tongues, the Parsoskii one, for ‘cruelty,’ to remind him where he comes from and why.  And he, or his son, or his will bring justice back into the world and solve the puzzle of the underpeople.”

ALAN: I agree that it’s rather simplistic to equate a character with the author. Jestacost is much more than that, and your analysis of his personality is spot on. But I can’t help feeling that Smith is an aspect of Jestacost in the same way that Robert Heinlein is an aspect of Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land. There’s no one-to-one correspondence, but each is an influence on the other.

JANE: All characters – even the worst — are aspects of the author who creates them.  Both my writer-self and my Lit professor-self rebel against equating.  But I shall leave it there.

Go on…

ALAN: Is this one of those “agree to differ” moments? I think it is… Never mind. Onward!

Jestacost finds C’mell to be a useful go-between, linking the groundswell of revolution among the underpeople to the interests of the Instrumentality, hopefully to the advantage of both.

This is the Rediscovery of Man – after centuries of being lotus-eaters, humanity is reawakening to a life of uncertainty and possible peril. It is the beginning of the end of their sterile utopia.

JANE: To say more would be to provide a major spoiler for the end of Norstilia, so instead I think the time has come to leave the peculiar yet oddly coherent universe of Cordwainer Smith behind and sail for other stars.

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