Flash review: Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith

Before Alastair Reynolds and the Ultras, before the mind-numbing and soul-crushing emptiness of deep space travel, there was Smith and his Scanners.  This is one of the first stories that combine Lovecraftian horror with space travel.  It uses very vivid imagery without too much exposition, adds concepts like body modification and its effects on human psychology, and it makes the reader to work hard to get all the nuances included in the text.  The story fizzles out at the end, but the worldbuilding will stay with the reader for a long time.

Martel is a Scanner on shore leave.  This means that he gets to spend a few days with his senses somehow restored.  As a Scanner, he is normally cut off from all sensory inputs, other than sight, and he has to monitor his environment and body functions via a control box implanted in his chest.  This is necessary to pilot deep space vessels, while avoiding death through the Great Pain of Space.  This pain slowly creeps into any conscious being, eventually killing them.  Only Scanners, who volunteered to have a series of complex medical procedures done on their bodies, can remain awake during the voyage.  For this, they and their guild are highly esteemed in the world, and they are considered essential for space travel.

While restored to humanity, Martel is called to attend an emergency meeting of the guild.  Normally, his state would preclude him from attending, but the guild leader, Vomact, insists that he comes.  At the meeting, Vomact reveals that a scientist came up with a way to counter the great pain of space and is about to announce his invention to the world.  Vomact is worried that this discovery would make Scanners obsolete.  Despite being free of nearly all sensory inputs and emotions, and driven by logic, the Scanners vote to have the scientist killed.  The only vocal opposition comes from Martel, who in his human state realizes how much of his humanity he sacrificed, and so he pleads with the others to allow the scientist to proceed to the plan, in order for all Scanners become human again.  His proposal is defeated, and the Scanners send an assassin after the scientist.

Martel decides to find the scientist first, to warn him about the coming danger.  He manages to get there just in time to stop the assassination, but he is severely injured.  When he comes to, he finds out that the government had not only welcomed the invention, but also decided to restore the Scanners to their old human selves and offer them the prestigious roles of star pilots on the newly designed ships.

This story is a difficult, but rewarding read, which doesn’t give much away, and instead forces the readers to make many associations themselves.  Initially, we don’t know what’s wrong with Martel; we only realize that he is different and acts like a dead man who came back to life.  The truth is not too far off, and that only highlights the plight of the Scanners.  The small events throughout the story, such as Martel’s PTSD or the communication methods of the Scanners, gives the Scanners exceptional depth, which I didn’t expect from a story of this size.

The worldbuilding creates more questions than answers and certainly pulls the readers in.  Space is simply a Lovecraftian horror with everything conscious dying of increasing pain.  That’s impossible to fully grasp, but very easy to be terrified of.  Human society, on the other hand, is described to a far greater detail.  The author drops clues all over the place: from how Scanners see themselves as guardians of peace outside Earth, to an extended scene where Martel is interrogated at immigration in order to enter the city the scientist is present in.  These hints, as well as a few more, draw a picture of a dystopian, war-like society, with efficient but brutal bureaucracy and an anonymous ruling council.  I would certainly like to explore this world more.

There’s one thing I would complain about.  I felt that the ending was a little rushed.  The revolutionary technology that would make the Scanners obsolete certainly hints at the mechanics of the great pain, but it is very difficult to believe or implement.  The final confrontation is over too soon, and despite clear antagonists, the only person to suffer any negative consequences is only a pawn, who earlier came across as a sympathetic character.  Smith may have wanted to paint the world as indifferent where the guilty may walk free and the innocent end up dead, but that didn’t mesh well with the final touch, where the ruling council went out of its way to help the Scanners instead of disposing of them.

Still, this is a wonderfully disturbing read, with great worldbuilding, innovative technologies and tight writing, which reveals just enough for the reader to get the picture and become scared.  I feel that this story could have been the direct inspiration for Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe.  Despite being over 75 years old, Scanners Live in Vain can compete with any modern dark science fiction.

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