The first short story published by Cordwainer Smith in 1950, this story is still considered a seminal work of science fiction.

It was quite by coincidence that the story came to be read at all, since it was published in an extremely low circulation science fiction magazine that had just happened to also carry a story by the more established Frederik Pohl, who happened to read Smith's story and spread the word. It has subsequently been put into many many anthologies.

The story starts out with a series of unexplained terms and references, leaving the reader wondering what is going on, although it doesn't overdo it. Both the background to the story, and the great turning point and consequences of the story are layed out in some exposition and plot.

The story is set in the far distant future, when space travel has become routine. However, space travel brings an unexplained sickness that drives all people insane. Thus, a special group of people, the scanners, must be created. Through a process of mechanical modification, a person can be able to stand the pain of traveling conscious through deep space without going insane. However, the cost of this modification is that the person no longer has any human senses (other than sight), their brain becoming more or less a computer that must "scan" everything around them instead of feeling. They even must check their own heart rate mechanically. On deep space journeys they both pilot the ships and make sure that the unconscious passengers are still alive.

Only through a special process called "Cranching" can they temporarily hear, feel or taste again.

This is all background information for the story, which describes how a Lord of the Instrumentality, named Adam Stone, discovers a process where people can travel through space conscious without feeling the pain of space. The scanners, a rather elite brotherhood, believe that this is a blasphemous usurpation of their power, and at a emergency meeting, decide to kill Adam Stone. However, the protagonist of the story, Martel, comes to the meeting under the influence of cranching, that is, temporary human feeling, and realized that he must save the life of Adam Stone.

The work shows Cordwainer Smith's vision in many areas, such as his imagining of how a futuristic bureaucracy may work, the influences of new technology upon psychology, and of course, the possibilities of human modification. It also possibly may be a religious metaphor, a common undertone in his works.

It might be worth mentioning that this story, seemingly so sterile, illustrates well how wrenchingly visceral Cordwainer Smith can be -- a salient point here is that he had struggled throughout his life with one missing eye and poor vision in the other. This meant that he was often entirely without sight for a good deal of time...quite a handicap for someone in military intelligence and diplomacy, as he was.

Scanners, on the other hand have no senses other than sight, and not only must check heart rate on a regular basis but must check against bodily harm. They can feel emotion, but don't have any clue as to what their faces are doing.

Armed with this knowlege it's interesting to see how he inverts his experience to make the "Scanners" more real. Scanners use mirrors to make sure that everything is OK with their bodies...just as he probably utilized every reflective surface in sight to make up for lack of direct vision on one side. One of the Scanners can control his face to suit his emotion, which he learned from hard practise, again, with mirrors -- just as one of his signature photos shows him giving a roguish look...with his glass eye.

I don't know if this is too fannish, but it is interesting.

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