By one of those synchronicities of action and interconnected information that others like to call ‘coincidences’, ‘weird’, or even ‘fate’, I had just finished re-reading the Cordwainer Smith short story ‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’ (1964) when I happened to watch Cloud Atlas (2012) again.
I was surprised to find a similarity of theme and content I had not heard mentioned before.
The Cloud Atlas script is credited to its directors: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski. That it is based on David Mitchell’s novel of the same name is less well advertised, as is the influence on him and the Wachowskis of mystic and/or philosopher Ken Wilber. In the segment telling of the rebellion by ‘fabricant’ Sonmi-451, cloned for slave labour, against a society she regards as unjust for consigning her and others to a less than human status, to be treated like animals, and killed off at whim.
In Clown Town Cordwainer Smith tells one of a series of his stories painting a grand picture of humankind’s future, from relatively close events to millions of years hence. It is set on Fomalhaut III, and concerns the prophesied and yet accidental coming together of pivotal figures to lead a rebellion against the Instrumentality – the rulers of humankind – based on opposition to treating as less than human the ‘undermen’. These undermen are genetically engineered animals made to look like humans while retaining some animal traits, and artificially created as slave labour. They are killed when they no longer serve the Instrumentality’s purpose, or reach an arbitrary age.
In Cloud Atlas, Sonmi-451 explains the need to act, and perhaps die, for the right thing to be seen as right
In Clown Town the undermen are are all brutally murdered by legal decree after declaring their love for their human antagonists, and their willingness to die for passing on that message. We are not told how things change because of the rebellion, but we are told that things changed unimaginably for countless billions of people in aeons to come because of that rebellion.
In Cloud Atlas an overall message is the interconnectedness of past, present and future lives in the choices available and made, and the outcomes for many more people than individuals can imagine in their own specific circumstances. That too is the message of Clown Town.
Cordwainer Smith was one of Paul Linebarger’s (1913-1966) pseudonyms; he also wrote fiction as Felix C. Forrest and Carmichael Smith.
Linebarger’s life was extraordinary without fictional embellishments: polymath, Johns Hopkins PhD in political science, faculty member of Duke University, soldier, writer on psychological warfare, military advisor, CIA consultant, and confidante of John F. Kennedy. He is also suspected to have suffered delusional fugue states in which he lived a parallel life described in his own stories, and the science fiction of others.
Writing in a lyrical style, redolent of naïve fairy tales and dated language, his narratives depart so much from conventional fiction prose that he faced considerable hurdles being published as a fiction writer at all.
His style shares something of the bombastic, manic ranting of AE Van Vogt’s best, and the frenzy of Philip K Dick at his most paranoid. Cordwainer Smith’s science fiction output is focused on episodes taking place in a future universe in which the human race has developed technologies involving spliced animal-human clones, mouse-brain computers, terrifying interstellar travel dangers, the Instrumentality of Man as trans-galactic government, and a re-discovery of what makes people and other creatures ‘human’ in the humane and rational sense.
The complete short fiction revolving around this theme are collected in the anthology, The Rediscovery of Man, first published in 1993, which was quite recently my bedside reading, lulling me to sleep. ‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’ is one of those stories. It defies easy summary for the complexity of the intertextuality with his other stories and the unstated but implied meanings he weaves around his fevered visions.
It must be read to be appreciated, even if Smith is an acquired taste. One that I was drawn to instantly decades ago when I first read the jarring, haunting ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ (1950), and the enchanting, almost folksy ‘The Game of Rat and Dragon’ (1955). Smith is incidentally notable, too, for weaving Australia into his vision of the future, with the planet Old North Australia, or Norstrilia, featuring prominently as the home of ‘stroon’, a unique rejuvenation drug.
I’m not suggesting plagiarism, but I was quite taken by the similarities in themes and styles. The film, like Smith, presents its narrative almost like a sumptuous fairy tale (in places), interrupted by moment s of intensely confronting, shocking revulsion.
They are both reminders that in a world currently dominated by the shallowness of hipster ignorance, and millennial techno-determinism, and misanthropic Trumpist dementia, there is room for reminders that integrity and humanity are a common thread through human history that are not ever extinguished while the species survives, but must be rekindled from time to time to overcome the faddish dead ends of ideology, narrow-mindedness, and execrably unethical behaviour we persuade ourselves to pursue in the blinkered solipsism of contemplating only our immediate present predicaments.
I am also reminded again of how precious education can be by creating an environment in which disparate facts and interests can generate new and delightful connections between what seemed to be disparate and unconnected ideas and perspectives. It is a way of enriching an intellectual life that no drugs or power trips can equal, and yet it exists only for those who work at cultivating the many separate strands of its potential over the decades of their lives.
As I wrote years ago, those who don’t pursue such cultivation are always left with a lesser, less rich potential for meaning and enjoyment of human narratives, if only because they cannot recognise allusions and metaphors for what they refer to. Eeven now I wonder what else I’m missing from the two stories by not having read all of Cordwainer Smith’s fiction, or Mitchell’s novel, or Wilber’s writings.