The Rediscovery of Cathay: Chinese Elements in Cordwainer Smith's Science Fiction (2004, 2007) -- Chapter 1: The Instrumentality of Storytelling (2/7)

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Chapter One: The Instrumentality of Storytelling

Scholars and critics such as Gary K. Wolfe and John Clute have indicated that Cordwainer Smith uses 'a Chinese narrative and structural style'[1] in his stories, especially the later ones. Such a discovery probably is first addressed in John J. Pierce's introduction essay 'Cordwainer Smith: the Shaper of Myths' in the collection The Best of Cordwainer Smith edited by Pierce himself[2], where he pointed out the story 'The Dead Lady of Clown Town' as the most remarkable example. While Pierce notes that Smith had used the same technique 'in some unpublished historical stories as early as 1939'[3], part of this kind of narrating appears in the 1958 story 'The Burning of the Brain', which is six years earlier than 'The Dead Lady of Clown Town'.

Observe the beginning of the story:

I tell you, it is sad, it is more than sad, it is fearful – for it is a dreadful thing to go into the Up-and-Out, to fly without flying, to move between the stars as a moth may drift among the leaves on a summer night.[4]
The first paragraph is a conclusive introduction telling what this story is, and the following paragraphs briefly introduce the protagonists – Go-Captain Magno Taliano and his wife Dolores Oh as well as the means of interstellar flight. And then the narrator gradually leads the reader in the main body of this story. Among the introductory paragraphs, there is particular one worth noticing:

For him to marry the most beautiful beauty of forty worlds was a wedding like Heloise and Abelard's or like the unforgettable romance of Helen America and Mr. Grey-no-more.[5]
Here the narrator compares the love between the protagonists not only to the real love affair that took place in the 12th century but also a fictional one, 'The Lady Who Sailed The Soul'. In spite of being set in an age about three thousand years before 'The Burning of the Brain', readers in the real world had to wait two more years for this story. Go further to check it, just in the first paragraph, we can come across to

Sometimes they were compared to Heloise and Abelard, whose story has been found among books in a long-buried library. Other ages were to compare their life with the weird, ugly-lovely story of the Go-Captain Taliano and the Lady Dolores Oh.[6]

It is very natural to assume that the narrator of both stories is the same (they are indeed written by the same 'Cordwainer Smith'), and he must not exist in the stories but instead live in an age centuries, maybe millennia after them, so that he is able to cross-refer to one another as well as make comments. It is a third-person omniscient point of view, but the storyteller speaks to the audience in a first-person tone. Such a narrating is used in almost all the important Chinese novels, and it can be traced back to an old profession in ancient China.

According to Lu Hsun's A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, the detailed description of the profession of storytelling started in Song Dynasty (960-1279).[7] It is a kind of performance arts and still exists in contemporary radio broadcasting and cable TV channels. Even though the same story is for sure to be interpreted into many styles by different performers, the storytellers still need a written basis for their job, and it is called 話本 'Hua Ben' – 'the book for storytelling', or 'the basis for storytelling' because of the double meanings of the word 本 'Ben'. Since the audience of storytelling were ordinary masses, most of them were even illiterate, these materials had to be easy to understand; not in the formal language which was only used in official documents and legitimate literature (neither modern China nor Taiwan uses it anymore, but it is still taught in school for the sake of reading) but in the everyday spoken form. After some knowledgeable scholars had collected various sources of a specific topic and systematically codified them, there came the novels, such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Journey to the West, and short story anthologies like 三言二拍 'Three Words and Two Flaps'[8]. As time went by, even a great number of original fictions were created in this format.

A typical Chinese short fiction in the storytelling form contains five parts: the opening, 入話 'Ru Hua' (entering the story), 頭回 'Tou Hui', main body, and the ending[9]. The opening part is always a verse about the topic or the allegory of the main story. 'Ru Hua' sometimes introduces the background and the meaning of the opening verse as well as provides some comments. The 'Tou Hui' part includes shorter and simpler story or stories independent to the main one, but still in the same category though the result might vary. Storytellers use these three parts to provoke the audience's interest while waiting for a larger group of people, which means a bigger fortune, to participate in, and then they can go on for the main story. The ending is another verse acting as the final conclusion, again stresses on the allegory told right before. We can see that storytelling is indeed a kind of entertainment, but it still has the function of social education, teaching the morals and virtues to the illiterate masses.

There are indeed opening verses in Cordwainer Smith's short fiction. Three stories start with a song or ballad: 'Himself in Anachron', 'Under the Old Earth', and 'The Ballad of Lost C'mell', but none of them is succeeded by a 'Ru Hua'. However, the opening verses of 'Under the Old Earth' and 'The Ballad of Lost C'mell' appear again in the key points of both stories. The former is what the computer chanted to Sun-boy for dreaming 'an entire new kind of music'[10] in order to substitute the old one making 'people shudder with its delicious evil'[11]; the reappearance of the latter announces the destined love affair between C'mell and Lord Jestocost before the conspiracy, and until the final section readers can find out the true meaning of this rhyme from the dialogue of these two protagonists.[12] Such a reuse of the opening verses is not seen in Chinese works; it may be Smith's creation.

It is almost impossible for writers to compose 'Tou Hui' in modern stories published in the media like science fiction magazine. If the writer has the inspiration, why not expand them to full-size stories for sale but only as attachments? The reference to the love affair of Helen America and Mr. Grey-no-more in 'The Burning of the Brain' is an adequate example. It could be regarded as a stub of 'Tou Hui', since the narrator only mentions it but does not tell the whole story, which is expanded to a standalone later. As for the part of Heloise and Abelard, I think that it is inadequate to re-tell a historical love story (though it is not a great hit such as Romeo and Juliet) without science fictional rewriting only for comparison with the main plot. Introducing it in one paragraph is enough, or it could distract the reader. The ending verse is also omitted as well, since it seems that there is no such a tradition in this genre to use a poem or verse for allegorical conclusion.

Although Cordwainer Smith does not strictly follow the structure of Chinese storytelling fiction, he must have learned the tricks of which storytellers would take advantage of, so that he is capable of writing introduction sections to provide background information as well as draw the audience's attention. In my opinion, the beginning of 'The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal' is the most excellent one:

Do not read this story: turn the page quickly. The story may upset you. Anyhow, you probably know it already. It is a very disturbing story. Everyone knows it. The glory and the crime of Commander Suzdal have been told in a thousand different ways. Don't let yourself realize that the story is the truth.

It isn't. Not at all. There's not a bit of truth to it. There is no such planet as Arachosia, no such people as klopts, no such world as Catland. There are all just imaginary, they didn't happen, forget about it, go away and read something else.
(Smith's emphasis)
As the narrator introduces that the topic has been told for so many times, the audience, who know nothing about it, always want to learn more. The emphasis of the falsity only makes people believe not only its validity but also seriousness. It must be an important secret story in the history of Instrumentality of Mankind (despite the fact that it is a piece of fictional work by Cordwainer Smith). The warning of not reading it can only encourage the reader pay more attention to the following details. Paul M. A. Linebarger himself is an expert of psychological warfare, no wonder he can combine his knowledge about propaganda into storytelling and then have a more powerful effect.

The information provided in the introduction includes:
   Protagonist: Commander Suzdal
   Place: the planet Arachosia and its moon Catland
   Other characters: the race klopts
They are still mysterious, but the reader has sensed some impression at the first glance. It is interesting that there is very few data about time provided in Smith's introduction to his stories. For legends, exact time is no important, since they all happened ages ago.

Now I would like to discuss the main body part of the story. The appearance of the narrator and the use of verses still play important roles in this portion of Chinese 'Hua Ben'.

Since this kind of writing is based on real storytelling, it still retains narrator's special phrases for presenting the story and controlling the situation, such as 'it is said that…', 'Audience, please listen to your humble storyteller', 'the story splits into two threads', 'stop clavering and back to the story' and etc. While the story detail is contradictory to common sense or needs further information which might disturb the pace of the story, the narrator would also come out to explain it. Smith seldom uses the storytelling phrases, but it is common to see some explanations in parentheses in some stories, e.g. 'Druckboat' and 'The Dead Lady of Clown Town'. In science fiction texts, suspending the main story line with an explanation is not uncommon and can be traced back to Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+, where every imaginary scientific invention is given a detailed description (even with graphics) whenever it comes into the story. But even so, the explanation part could be embedded in the plot; the author could easily make his characters do this job. From the reader's point of view, the story is still proceeding, not going into a completely different direction. But Smith's style is more similar to the Chinese one:
The supervisor sighed hopefully. He was young. "Guess it doesn't matter," he thought, picked up his guitar.

(Thirty-seven years later, he found out that it did matter. The Lady Goroke herself, one of the Chiefs of the Instrumentality, sent a Subchief of he Instrumentality to find out who had caused D'joan. ...... He was not punished otherwise, but the Lady Goroke commanded that those memories be left in his mind for so long as he might live.)

The man picked up his guitar, but the machine went on about its work.
The paragraph in parentheses tells the consequence of the supervisor who ignored the mistake causing the birth of Elaine, a side plot unrelated to the story. In my opinion, such a change is a bit too abrupt, and it is also weird to see an entire paragraph parenthesised in a piece of fiction text. What is more, Smith uses parentheses to mark the words describing a mental process, thus complicates the situation. If Smith could borrow more from the Chinese storytelling terminology, such twists in plot would be better presented.

Because composing verses is the traditional mainstream literature in ancient China, those who show the ability to make it are considered erudite. So adding verses into 'Hua Ben' not only makes the 'narrator' more authoritative but is also a chance for the author to show off his brilliance as a learned person. The function of verses in main story is much more flexible. They can be used as description, explanation, remark from knowledgeable people, or just literary work of the characters. The first three situations are usually preceded with a certain storytelling phrases like 'there is a poem as the proof' or 'here is a poem for praising'. There is a similar case in 'The Dead Lady of Clown Town':
Poets later tried to describe Elaine at the door with a verse which begins,
There were brown ones and blue ones
   And white ones and whiter,
      In the hidden and forbidden
      Downtown of Clown Town.
   There were horrid ones and horrider
   In the brown and yellow corridor.
(Smith's emphasis)
Smith himself is quite satisfied with these rhymes. Although he regarded himself as 'one of the most minor of the minor poets of America', he still likes to include them into his science fiction[16].

Chinese chapterised (each chapter is regarded as one episode in storytelling) novels, which are much longer than short fiction, though lack of 'Ru Hua' and 'Tou Hui', still begin with a profile of background information, and then move into the main plot line. Take The Romance of the Three Kingdoms for example: after the opening verse, the narrator first briefly repeats the Chinese history from the Warring State period (475-221 BC) to Late Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), and then explains that the corruption of government caused disasters, making the populace suffer. Three brothers with magical power rise up to rebel, recruiting about five hundred thousand people, and thus worsen the situation. After all these description, the story finally introduces the main protagonist 劉備 Liu, Pei (Liu, Bei in Pinyin). Before acquainting herself with this character, the reader has got at least a basic idea about the bad condition of Liu's contemporaries, and thus may help the reader to accept his ideal and uprightness.

Take a look of Norstrilia, Cordwainer Smith's only novel and we can find out that its beginning has a similar effect.

The first sentence in the first chapter 'Theme and Prologue' clearly points out, 'Story, place and time – these are the essentials.'[17] An extremely brief outline of the entire story in mere four lines follows up. The second and the third section concentrate on the planet Old North Australia, i.e. Norstrilia, including her special product, the life style, philosophy, and customs of her residents, and her relationship with the Old Earth while 'this event' happened. Section four tells the time. Again, a mysterious expression:
Time: first century of the Rediscovery of Man.

When C'mell lived.

About the time they polished off Shayol, like wiping an apple on the sleeve.

Long deep into our own time. Fifteen thousand years after the bombs went up and the boom came down on Old Old Earth.

Recent, see?
For those who never read Cordwainer Smith before, only the fourth sentence makes sense, but such a narration does not trouble much, just like I have mentioned, the exact time of legendary tales is not so important. On the other hand, the mysterious atmosphere is in fact more attractive. And then finally the narrator comes to the hero – Rod McBan. Without this chapter, readers have to figure out the whole idea about Smith's universe themselves, and the story is then more difficult to read.

In the 1964 novella version of the first part of Norstrilia, 'The Boy Who Bought Old Earth', it begins with a typical Smith's style, almost the same as that in his short works:
Later, much later, people forgot how Rod McBan had bought the whole Planet Earth without even knowing that he had done it. They remembered the extraneous things, ...


The real drama remained untold.


So let's go back to the beginnings, and start with Old North Australia.
Such an opening is more powerful, more intriguing, but it is a pity that Smith or the editors did not keep it in later versions.

The main body of Norstrilia is conservatively composed in the traditional third person omniscient viewpoint in most parts. The narrator only surfaces again in the beginning of the chapter 'Traps, Fortunes and Watchers'. He does appear at the opening chapter 'Lost Music in an Old World' of The Underpeople, the second of the two-volume version, but the whole chapter was deleted in the final one volume edition as well.

Cordwainer Smith may be the only person who uses of Chinese narrating style in science fiction. There is almost no follower who takes another try. What is more, Smith does not completely copy the format of Chinese 'Hua Ben' but to understand its spirit, consider the conventional way in science fiction writing, and then make it into his own method at last. Kim Stanley Robinson has made an effort to mimic the Chinese storytelling in the Book 1 of his alternate history The Years of Rice and Salt. While it indeed looks very similar at the first glance owing to the pairing of the chapter titles[20], the uses of poems, and a variety of the famous chapter ending phrase in a form like 'if you want to know what is going on, please continue at the next chapter', the book is still written in the ordinary third person point of view. It also lacks a proper introduction which helps the reader bury herself into the story, and not to mention that it contains no description about the interactions between the narrator and the audience.

The text most closely akin to Smith's narrative might be David D. Levine's 'The Tale of the Golden Eagle'. Levine never hides his intention to imitate Smith:
The idea of spaceships with animal brains reminded me of (or was perhaps stolen from) the wonderful Instrumentality stories of Cordwainer Smith, so I wrote the story in a "Smithian" style, with a great depth of time, loving description, and a recognition within the story that it is a story.[21]
In the contents of the story, readers can see a similar evolution of interstellar flight, the usage animal brain as a machine controller, the underpeople naming system (M'zelle), the double title like 'Sir and Master', and of course the distinction between born-people and made-people (mankind and underpeople); as far as the narrating structure is concerned, the opening is a complete mimic:
This is a story about a bird. A bird, a ship, a machine, a woman – she was all these things, and none, but first and fundamentally a bird.

It is also a story about a man – a gambler, a liar, and a cheat, but only for the best of reasons.

No doubt you know the famous Portrait of Denali Eu, also called the The Third Decision, whose eyes have been described as "two pools of sadness iced over with determination." This is the story behind that painting.

It is a love story. It is a sad story. And it is true.
Unfortunately, the narrator just surfaces once, and this story still lacks the features of 'Hua Ben' which I have discussed. Therefore, Cordwainer Smith is so far still unique by using Chinese narrating structures in the field of science fiction.

[1] Clute, John, 'SMITH, CORDWAINER' entry in John Clute and Peter Nicholls ed., The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (London: Orbit, 1993), pp. 1121-1122 (p. 1121). See also Gary K. Wolfe, 'SMITH, CORDWAINER' entry in Jay P. Pederson ed., St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th edn. (Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1996), pp. 864-865.
[2] See Pierce, John J., 'Cordwainer Smith: the Shaper of Myths' in Pierce ed., The Best of Cordwainer Smith (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975), pp. xi-xix (p.xiii)
[3] Pierce, 'Note of "The Dead Lady of Clown Town"' in The Best of Cordwainer Smith, p. 124.
[4] Smith, Cordwainer, 'The Burning of the Brain' in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, pp. 177- 185 (p. 177).
[5] Ibid, p. 178.
[6] Smith, Cordwainer, 'The Burning of the Brain' in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, pp. 97-117 (p. 97).
[7] See Lu, Hsun, The Essay Collection on the History of Fiction: A Brief History of Chinese Fiction and Others (Taipei: Li-Jen Books, 2000), pp. 94-95.
[8] This term is a combination of five books; they are The Brilliant Words Which Moralise to the World; The Upright Words Which Warn off the World; and The Eternal Words Which Wake up the World, all of them were compiled by Feng, Meng-Long; and Amazing Stories Which Make You Flap the Desk; Again, Amazing Stories Which Make You Flap the Desk written by Ling, Meng-Chu.
[9] See Xu, Wen-Zhu, 'Introduction' in Ling, Meng-Chu, Again, Amazing Stories Which Make You Flap the Desk (Taipei: Sanmin Books, 1993), pp. i-xii (p. i).
[10] Smith, Cordwainer, 'Under Old Earth' in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, pp. 289-325 (p. 324).
[11] Ibid.
[12] See Smith, Cordwainer, 'The Ballad of Lost C'mell' in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, pp. 401-418 (pp. 410, 416-7).
[13] Smith, Cordwainer, 'The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal' in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, pp. 201-214 (p. 201).
[14] Smith, Cordwainer, 'The Dead Lady of Clown Town' in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, pp. 223-287 (p. 226).
[15] Ibid, p. 237.
[16] See Smith, Cordwainer, 'Epilogue' in Space Lords, pp.205-206 (p. 206).
[17] Smith, Cordwainer, Norstrilia (Framingham, MA: The NESFA Press, 1994), p. 1.
[18] Ibid, p. 3.
[19] Ibid, pp. 225-226.
[20] Traditionally, each chapter title or every two chapter titles in 'Hua Ben' contains a pair of sentences which have to match word by word to each other, which is called 'titular couplet'. Robinson takes the form of rhyme, e.g.
    Another journey west, Bold and Psin find an empty land;
    Temur is displeased, and the chapter has a stormy end. (the title of Chapter 1, Book 1)
but this is definitely not in the style of 'Hua Ben'. Here I try to translate the title of chapter eighteen in The Journey to the West:
    At Kuan-Yin Temple Tripitaka escapes the hazard;
    In Old Gao Grange Wu-Kong subdues the demon.
We can see that Kuan-Yin to Old Gao, a match of names; Temple to Grange, a match of buildings; Tripitaka to Wu-Kong, another match of names; escape to subdue, verb to verb; and finally hazard to demon, both are bad things. This used to be an exercise among literate Chinese people, but it is still difficult to make a pair properly. So even in The Journey to the West, only about one third of the titles are perfectly matched. Of course in English it could only be harder. Robinson might recognise this and decide to take an easier way.
[21] Levine, David D., 'About the Story' in '"The Tale of the Golden Eagle" by David D. Levine' (2004), http://www.spiritone.com/%7Edlevine/sf/eagle.html [accessed 3 August 2004]
[22] Levine, David D., 'The Tale of the Golden Eagle' in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (2003), my citation is from the electronic version purchased from Fictionwise Publications: http://www.fictionwise.com/, p. 3.

→ Chapter 2: The Journey to the Old Old Earth

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

'it is said that…'話說
'stop clavering and back to the story'閒話少敍,言歸正傳
'there is a poem as the proof'有詩為證
'here is a poem for praising'有詩讚曰

'Audience, please listen to your humble storyteller'
'the story splits into two threads'

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