The Rediscovery of Cathay: Chinese Elements in Cordwainer Smith's Science Fiction (2004, 2007) -- Chapter 4: The Game of Human Nonhumans (5/7)

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Chapter Four: The Game of Human Nonhumans

One of the most significant characteristics in Cordwainer Smith's science fiction is the interactions between mankind and other intelligent beings. Readers would come across telepathic or intelligent animals, human-looking people derived from animal genes (the underpeople), robots equipped with human or animal brains, and spirits/hallucinations. Despite being considered inferior to mankind, all these beings more or less possess features belonging to humans. Due to the fact that Smith takes advantage of Chinese elements in his works, I had some assumptions that these 'human nonhumans' have their Chinese backgrounds as well while starting this research. However, after comparing Smith's texts with most of the noted traditional Chinese fantastic stories, I found out that the connection is not as strong as what I had expected. In this chapter, I would like to explain it by discussing every sort of these intelligent beings.

The first kind I would like to discuss is the telepathic/intelligent animals. There are two typical instances: the telepathic cat companions in 'The Game of Rat and Dragon' and the talking bear in 'Mark Elf' and 'The Queen of the Afternoon' (named the Mid-Sized Bear and the Wise Old Bear respectively but still the same one). The cats are intimate and important 'Partners' of pinlighters during the fights against dragons in the deep space while planoforming. Although the protagonist Underhill has developed an affection to his Partner Lady May and is unable to accept woman's love any more, these cats are still 'cats'; they are fond of their human partners and willing to fight with them, but the intellect does not play an important role here. These cats just show their temperament and the nature of a predator, since the terrible dragons turn out to be giant rats in their minds.

Lisa Raphals tries to compare 搜神記 Sou shen ji, or Records of an Inquest into the Spirit Realm, a Chinese collection of anomaly stories or records compiled in the fourth century, to Cordwainer Smith's depictions of human-animal relationships. She analyses Book Twenty of Sou shen ji and finds out three kinds of human-animal reciprocity:

humans who helps animals, who help or reward them in return, animals who exact revenge for harm or death at the hands of humans, and animals who exact revenge on behalf of human benefactors.[1]
We can discover that all these three reciprocities are mutual cause/effect relationships. If one had done something good to the animals, she would receive a good retribution; doing bad, and then she could only be revenged. Because 'karma' is a concept the Chinese bear in mind, and mortal teaching is always one of the important functions of Chinese tales, I think the stories Raphals discusses emphasise more on both the estrangement (animals also know how to reciprocate or revenge, a feature only human beings have) and the education (even the beasts can do these, we mankind should do better) aspects. Even though Chinese literature never lacks such works about animal anomaly, it is hard to find one which describes the intimacy between humans and animals just like the counterpart of pinlighters and their partners. In fact, there are two closer instances in book fourteen of Sou shen ji, but none of them is out of affection.

The first one is a tale of silkworm.[2] It is said that in the ancient time, there was a girl whose father had been going to the war. He left nothing but a male horse. Since the girl missed her father very much, she jokingly told to the horse that if he could carry back her father, she would marry him. The horse did it, but the girl did not keep her word. Her father even killed and de-skinned the horse after knowing the whole thing. One day when the father was out, the horse skin wrapped the girl and flew away. Her father finally found her becoming a larger silkworm on a mulberry tree, and that started to be exactly the species of its kind raised by the Chinese. In this story, the intimacy between the horse and the girl is by brute force.

The other tale is the origin legend of one Chinese minority.[3] Also in the ancient time, there was an old lady in the emperor's palace who had an ear problem. The doctor picked out an enormous worm, which later transformed to a five-colour dog named 盤瓠 'Panhu'. At that time the barbarians in the west were strong and the emperor could not conquer them, so he announced that he will grant a big fortune and his youngest daughter to the one who is able to kill the barbarian leader. Panhu successfully brought the leader's head to the emperor. The emperor and his ministers at first were unwilling to keep the promise because of Panhu's identity, but the princess insisted, therefore he finally let them go. Panhu and the princess went to the south and bore six boys and six girls. These children married one another and became the ancestors of the southern 'barbarians'. The official history book of the latter Han Dynasty also contains a similar record while chronicling the alien races outside or on the border of China. We cannot find out whether the princess loves Panhu in this story, and thus I tend to interpret this as an obligation. However, according to the legend of 畲族 'She' race[4] (the minority previously mentioned), Panhu was not a dog transformed from a worm, but a combination of dragon and 麒麟 kyrin (Chinese unicorn). The descriptions of the battle and the marriage are far more detailed. The emperor would not allow his daughter to marry unless Panhu became a man, and Panhu said that it is possible for him to transform, but he has to be caged alone for seven days. Due to the revenge of the daughter of the barbarian leader, Panhu could not finish his metamorphosis and his head remained a dragon's one. This version is somewhat closer to Smith's case, but it still lacks the psychological or mental depictions. So, to me these stories are not as persuasive as Linebarger's life experiences to explain the cat-pinlighter relationship. Linebarger's affection to cats is well known, and Underhill's in favour of cats rather than women could reflect Linebarger's 'imagining of an ideal woman until he could deal realistically with his excessively high expectations for his second marriage'[5].

The Old Wise Bear is another paradigm. He has high intelligence and telepathic power, and befriends with True Men like Laird, fighting with them against the Jwindz; but unlike the primitive underpeople (the Unauthorized Men), he is still in the beast form. Chinese stories about talking animals are not rare, but after ruling out the cases of godly beasts (mostly dragons, but also gods' and fairies' mount animals) and animal spirits, which I will discuss later, and mere mimicking, it is more difficult to find a proper equivalent character that both has a long-term relationship with mankind and is wise enough to give advice, especially the amount of bear tales are even smaller. According to Arthur Burns, Linebarger is an sf fan and quite familiar with science fiction works[6], therefore I estimate that he might read Clifford D. Simak's awarded collection City, which contains a series of stories narrating the intelligent talking dogs inherit human's culture while the latter give up the Earth. The Wise Old Bear plays a role slightly similar to the robot guardian Jenkins, and he is just like those dogs for the retaining of animal form.

It is instinctive for readers with a Chinese background to connect Smith's underpeople with animal or plant spirits since there are so many tales about these spirits transforming into human shapes and interacting with people. Famous novels such as The Journey to the West provide various examples; what I have discussed in chapter two is only a trivial part. These stories are so common that they affect the culture and the language. For example, even in nowadays, the term 狐狸精 'fox spirit' is still used to execrate those females who are capable of seducing men and breaking others' marriages. However, there are at least three critical differences between these spirits and underpeople, therefore in my opinion even if Smith could be inspired by these Chinese creatures, it is still dangerous to categorise these two kinds of imagination beings into the same type.

The first and most significant reason is the origins of these creatures. The creation of animal or plant spirits is quite natural. Book Twelve of Sou Shen ji submits a theory which Raphals as well quotes in her essay: 'The Heaven has five 氣 qi (auras), and the myriad creatures are thus spawned.'[7] These five qi are auras of five elements (wood, fire, metal, water and earth) and each represents one virtue respectively. If all these five qi are pure, one then obtains the virtues of a saint. Creatures' appearances are shaped according to the qi, and their natures are also thus formed. And all the creatures are always close to their own kinds. The author then gives a couple of examples which Raphals interprets as 'Animals of the same category (...) naturally transform into one another with no anomaly'[8]:

A 1,000-year-old argus will turn into a mussel while it enters the sea, and a 100-year-old lark into a clam; turtles which have experience 1,000 winters are able to talk with humans; a millennium fox can transform to a beautiful woman; snakes so old can recover if being snapped off; hundred-year-old mice will gain the ability to tell people's fortune; all these are because of their long lives.[9]
Besides, Chinese people believe that through Taoist or Buddhist asceses, one can enjoy a healthy and long life, some might even be able to transcend into a better life form like gods or fairies. So can animals and plants, especially those who have achieved a long life. And the human shape is just the first step in their transcendence. This transformation is usually coupled with other magical powers. It is worth noticing that not every spirit is good, there are always evildoers successfully metamorphosing into people and becoming a greater hazard. Most of the obstacles in The Journey to the West are thus starting to exist. On the other hand, underpeople are at first human-made life forms 'produced' from altered animal genes and then create their own species. This human involvement and even the naming system of underpeople are obviously inspired by H. G. Well's The Island of Dr. Moreau.[10] The other two underpeople's features Chinese creature spirits do not have are as well caused by this artificial origin.

The second characteristic is that underpeople are made to provide labour forces for the jobs which human beings would not like and unsuitable for robots. Despite suffering from a lower social status, underpeople are still recognised as an essential part in the society. Even though they have their own underground world, they remain in touch with mankind as an 'underperson'. In Chinese cases, creature spirits seldom use their original animal/plant form to get in touch with people but transform into human shapes first. When those who are close to these spirits discover their real identities, the reactions are usually astonishment, awe, and fear. Some people even want to distinguish them. For example, in the legendary 白蛇傳 'Madame White Snake'[11], when the protagonist Xu found out his wife's not a woman but a white snake spirit, he seeks for help to get rid of her. Therefore the most common consequence of this kind of tales is the leaving of the spirits. In some cases, these spirits might be organised, but unlike the underpeople's society narrated in Norstrilia, they always belong to the same family or are minions under the command of a chieftain, and their connection to human world is limited.

Since creature spirits are not slaves, nor do they play an important role in human society, there is no need for them to fight for a better social status. For those who would like to transcend, becoming a human being is never the best choice because after practicing asceses or absorbing the qi from the heaven and the earth for ages (at least centuries), they can achieve higher levels such as gods, fairies or buddhas, and then enjoy human's worship. Other spirits who do not have so great ambitions are still able to metamorphose into a person if they would like experience the life of mankind; however, they do not have to abide by human laws or obligations since they always can transform back to their original form and go away. Their situation is thus completely different from underpeople's. Underpeople are made to be slaves; in spite of being hominids, they are not accepted as real people. The 'revolution' for their status in 'The Dead Lady of Clown Town' and the waiting for a 'Promised One' to save them all in Norstrilia are definitely concerned with western ideologies such as political campaign for civil rights and Christianity. Therefore, even if Smith's ideas of underpeople indeed come from Sun, Yat-sen's revolution against the Manchu Dynasty[12], their link with traditional Chinese fantastic stories is rather weak. And what is more, Elms also points out that
But according to his [Linebarger's] colleagues and former students, he was not blind to the corruptions of the Nationalist Chinese Government of Taiwan. His real emotional commitment was not to that government but to the welfare of the Chinese people.[13]
Reviewing the history of the Republic of China (the nation established by the Chinese Nationalists), we can discover that the Chinese people did not really live in an enjoyable life but suffered more from continuous civil wars and the conflicts/wars against Japan. To compare this with the fate of underpeople, it is hard for me not to suspect that Smith might implicitly show his disappointments with the corruptions of Kuomintang in the Instrumentality of Mankind stories. Besides what I have discussed at the end of the previous chapter, the underpeople's waiting for a saviour also implies Chinese people's humble wish for a better life and a brighter future. This wish is rather economic than either political or religious, but I think it is natural for Smith to connect it to the Christian redemption. What the people want is a national leader who can feed the whole country and protect her citizens, but the Lords, or the higher officials of the Nationalists, still failed to satisfy these criteria during the time Smith was composing these works.

Though not as common as underpeople, intelligent robots as well appear here and there in Smith's works. Unlike ordinary ones in the sf tradition, Smith's robots are controlled by human or animal brains. All these robots, especially those equipped with human minds, are more or less retaining their human status. Samm, Folly and Finsternis, the three machines made from human by the Instrumentality as punishment in 'Three to a Given Star', return to their human forms and names after completing their mission. Lady Panc Ashash is always regarding herself as a woman as well as a robot; she urges fourteen ordinary robots to make a decision, an ability only people could have, and then they could proudly choose to suicide as human beings:
Said the Lady [Panc Ashash], "Overridden."

Said the sergeant, "No, you're a robot."

"See for yourself. Read my brain. I am a robot. I am also a woman. You cannot disobey people. I am people. I love you. Furthermore, you are people. You think. We love each other. Try. Try to attack."

... ...

"Do it," she said sadly, "but know what you are doing. You are not really escaping two human commands. You are making a choice. You. That makes you men."

The sergeant turned to his squad of man-sized robots: "You hear that? She says we are men. I believe her. Do you believe her?"

"We do," they cried almost unanimously.
Lord Sto Odin's two Roman legionary robots can be the ones who have least human features; however, when they heard the music in Bezirk, Flavius admitted that 'I am beginning to care about my life and I think that I am becoming what your reference explained by the word "afraid".'[15] Hence they still have the human's feeling.

It is straightforward to think that Smith's depictions of these robots might come from previous tales about automatons equipped with human brain, mind or soul. Ancient China lacks such kind of writing, and I think there could be two reasons: 1) there are indeed few records about automatons in China; 2) in Chinese tales, once leaving their own bodies, it is rare for human souls or ghosts to metasomatise onto lifeless items instead of other human even animal corpses, unless there is no other choice. The only exception is 李哪吒 Li, Nuo-Zha, the third son of the Deva King Vaisravana[16]. Nuo-Zha was a genius of Taoist magical power, but he was also a big troublemaker. Vaisravana could not make him disciplined but force him to commit suicide, and so did he. His soul went to his teacher, who made for him a body from lotuses. So thereafter Nuo-Zha became more difficult to hurt and stronger in magical ability. Even experiencing such an incident, everybody still regards him as a person; now he is even one of the most popular deities in Chinese world. Since there is no direct evidence showing that Nuo-Zha and Smith's robots are related, I tend to believe that Smith might have other sources for inspiration.

Cube ghost, Smith's another intelligent life form, illustrates a much looser connection to its Chinese counterpart. Even though it also appears in 'The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal', the cube ghost is thoroughly described in 'Think Blue, Count Two'. The ghost Sh'san was imprinted in a cube, which contained a laminated rat brain imprinted with the mind of a psychological guard named Tiga-belas. After triggered by the protected girl Veesey's mental action -- thinking blue and counting 'one-two' -- he would appear immediately. Sh'san is able to communicate to other people's 'every separate single cell'[17] so that his mental power can manipulate others' bodies and minds. Although the name Sh'san means 'thirteen' in Chinese language[18], I have not found any Chinese fantastic writing close to this story but believe that it is more based on traditional supernatural guardians in western fairy tales. Even in the science fiction genre, there is a famous example for these two life forms of Smith's -- Professor Simon Wright, an omniscient human brain in Edmond Hamilton's 'Captain Future' series.

Space travel is extremely painful in Smith's stories. The crew members always suffer from external hazards or internal disorders, both physical and psychological. Sometimes, Smith's spaceship pilots have to sacrifice their sanity in order to make sure the success of their missions. Readers can see in two non-Instrumentality stories -- 'Nancy' and 'The Good Friends' -- that how the uses of artificial hallucination generation kits (pre-programmed 'Nancy Routine' in the former and the hypo kit in the latter) influence the mental health of protagonists. Both cases could be treated as future versions of enchanting witchcrafts, and I dare not assert it comes from Chinese writing. On the other hand, the appearance of Mr. Grey-no-more to help Helen America in 'The Lady Who Sailed The Soul' is not only more mystical but also unexplained:
He [Mr. Grey-no-more] stood clear and handsome, the way she had seen him in New Madrid. He had no tubes, he did not tremble, she could see the normal rise and fall of his chest as he took one breath every hour or so. One part of her mind knew that he was a hallucination. Another part of her mind believed that he was real. She was mad, and she was very happy to be mad at this time, and she let the hallucination give her advice.[19]
At that time, the body of Mr. Grey-no-more was frozen in his pod and of course could not get to Helen America in person, so either it was his soul leaving the body or it was definitely Helen's imagination. But because the reader could witness the image of Grey-no-more instructing Helen how to set the gun to re-activate the repair mechanism, I think there is a possibility for the former explanation, which matches the spaceship name 'The Soul' as well, and thus this part of the story could be inspired from the Chinese tales about leaving souls.

Here I introduce the late seventh century story 'The Tale of Leaving Soul'[20] for comparison. There was a government official named 張鎰 Zhang, Yi, and his daughter, 倩娘 Qian-Niang, was very close to his nephew 王宙 Wang, Zhou. Wang was such an intelligent and beautiful child that Zhang liked him very much and jokingly promised to marry him the daughter. However, when the daughter had grown up, Zhang accepted a proposal from another family so that both young people were extremely depressed, and Wang even decided to move away. At the night he was leaving, Qian-Niang came to his boat, and they eloped. Five years later, Qian-Niang had borne two children, but she missed her parents very much and asked Wang to move back. So they both backed to where Zhang lived, and Wang firstly went to visit Zhang alone to thank for the marriage. But Zhang said to him that the daughter had in fact been sick on the bed for five years, and both were astonished. Finally two identical Qian-Niangs met and combined together; thus they understood it was the soul that left the body.

The weirdest part in this story is that Qian-Niang's soul not only was an illusion but also was able to act as an ordinary person, even bore two children in five years without a body; hence it is rare among its kind. No wonder Qian-Niang herself could not tell whether it was the soul leaving the body or the body leaving the soul. The case of Mr. Grey-no-more is more traditional: the soul only appears in a short time as a hallucination and without further interactions with Helen America. Another difference lies in the mental status of the protagonists. Like other spaceship pilots discussed before, Helen was 'mad' at that time, but heroes/heroines in Chinese stories are seldom considered insane when they come across spiritual beings. Linebarger's knowledge in psychology helps to establish a more scientific explanation and setting for his narration of spirits/hallucinations, and again we meet the common phenomenon in Cordwainer Smith's stories -- a complex of multiple original ideas which are difficult to isolate.
[1] Raphals, Lisa, 'The Limits of "Humanity" in Comparative Perspective: Cordwainer Smith and the Soushenji' in Wong Kin Yuen, Gary Westfahl and Amy Kit-sze Chan ed., World Weavers: Globalization, Science Fiction, and the Cybernetic Revolution (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005), pp. 143-156 (p. 150)
[2] See Gan, Bao, In Search of the Supernatural: The Written Record, Newly Annotated (Taipei: Sanmin Books, 2000), pp. 494-498.
[3] Ibid, pp. 482-485.
[4] See People's Government of Guixi City, Jiangxi Province, 'The Legend of Lord Panhu', http://www.guixi.gov.cn/lvyou/chuanshuo/pangua.htm, [accessed 7 September 2004]
[5] Elms, Alan C., 'The Creation of Cordwainer Smith', p. 278.
[6] See Foyster, John, 'John Foyster Talks With Arthur Burns' in Exploring Cordwainer Smith (New York: Algol Press, 1975), pp. 18-24 (p. 23).
[7] Gan, op. cit., p. 425.
[8] Raphals, op. cit., p. 149.
[9] Gan, op. cit., pp. 425-426.
[10] See Elms, Alan C., 'Origins of the Underpeople: Cats, Kuomintang and Cordwainer Smith', pp. 170-171.
[11] There are several different versions of this story. The one in 警世通言 The Upright Words Which Warn off the World could be primitive, and it is less known by the masses. Later it is adapted into various dramas (Dramas in China are varied in different places. Because the variety lies in makeups, costumes, the ways of performance, the music and etc., each of them is often considered as a unique form.) and more detailed plots are added. In the initial version, the protagonist named 許宣 Xu, Xuan but later changed to 許仙 Xu, Xian; the servant of the heroine snake spirit was also turned to a green snake instead of the original green fish. What is more, the main idea of the entire story is also re-shaped to a romantic tragedy from an allegorical tale warning people of the drawback of lust.
[12] See Elms, 'Origins of the Underpeople: Cats, Kuomintang and Cordwainer Smith', pp. 177-181.
[13] Elms, Alan C., 'Introduction' in Smith, Norstrilia, p. xi.
[14] Smith, Cordwainer, 'The Dead Lady of Clown Town' in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, p. 270.
[15] Smith, Cordwainer, 'Under Old Earth' in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, p. 308.
[16] Because of the localisation of Buddhism in China, this Deva King is also given a Chinese identity. He is usually connected with a real general named 李靖 Li, Jing, who was active in the seventh century. But in the novel The Romance of Subinfeudating Godships, which is set in an age about three thousand years ago, the description of him has nothing to do with the reality. The latter version that is most well-known among the Chinese people, and he and all his three sons (of course fictional) become Taoist or Buddhist deities.
[17] Smith, Cordwainer, 'Think Blue, Count Two' in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, pp. 129-154 (p.148).
[18] See Lewis, Anthony R., Concordance to Cordwainer Smith, p. 142. This is Smith's another wordplay. According to the 'Tiga-Belas' entry (p. 154), this name stands for 'thirteen' in Bahasa, Indonesia as well.
[19] Smith, Cordwainer, 'The Lady Who Sailed The Soul' in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, p. 115.
[20] See Chen, Xuen-Yo, 'The Tale of Leaving Soul',
http://content.edu.tw/senior/chinese/tc_md/ha2/ha23/ha231_1/ha231_1bk.htm, [accessed 7 September 2004]

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