Monday, June 20, 2016

Cordwainer Smith: "No, No, Not Rogov!"

Cordwainer Smith
"No, No, Not Rogov!"
from The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith
16 pages

The following quotation constitutes the first three paragraphs of the story.

That golden shape on the golden steps shook and fluttered like a bird gone mad--like a bird imbued with an intellect and a soul, and, nevertheless, driven mad by ecstasies and terrors beyond human understanding--ecstasies drawn momentarily down unto reality by the consummation of superlative art.  A thousand worlds watched.

Had the ancient calendar continued this would have been A.D. 13,582.  After defeat, after disappointment, after ruin and reconstruction, mankind had leapt among the stars.

Out of meeting inhuman art, out of confronting non-human dances, mankind had made a superb esthetic effort and had leapt upon the stage of all the worlds.

.  .  .

The golden shape on the golden steps executed shimmering intricacies of meaning.  The body was gold and still human.  The body was a woman, but more than a woman.  On the golden steps, in the golden light, she trembled and fluttered like bird gone mad. 

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever," Keats once said.  This, of course, frequently leads to those who enjoy quibbling, and the quibbled topic usually is "beauty."  Is there some beauty that is recognized by all or is beauty always "in the eye of the beholder"?  Part of the debate may involve the issue of the beautiful that appears before its time. Many literary works, musical compositions, paintings, and sculptures are initially rejected or even castigated as ugly and then "rediscovered" a decade or more to be very beautiful.  Aside from these issues, I wonder if  it is "a joy forever," or even if it is a joy?  Could beauty be something else?   Is there a beauty that might be so profound that it becomes destructive to the unprepared?  Cordwainer Smith explores this idea in this short story. 

In spite of the introductory quotation, most of the story is told on a less exalted level.  It is set in the Soviet Union, begins during WWII, and continues on through several decades and commissars.  It takes place in a research laboratory, and the cast of characters includes Rogov, (the head of the research team),  Cherpas (initially Rogov's greatest rival and later his wife), and two observers installed by Stalin.  One is  Gausgofer (a scientist and a policewoman, whose real job is to watch the scientists), who falls in love with Rogov, and, therefore, hates Cherpas.  The other is Gauck (whose real job was to watch everybody, including Gausgofer), about whom nothing is said and who just watches and says little.  "Gauck had no friends, no enemies, no beliefs, no enthusiasm.  Even Gausgofer was afraid of him."

Their goal was to develop a device that, as a receiver, could read and record the thoughts of people at a distance.  In addition, once turned into a transmitter, it should be able to influence the thinking of people at a great distance.

Eventually they focused on the receiver function, but test results shifted the goal from reading thoughts at a distance to being able to see what targeted individuals were seeing.  Being able to see, for example, what the US president was seeing would give the USSR a decided advantage in that it could now read the briefing papers given to the president.  The USSR would know what the US president knew.

They succeed, but not in the way they expected.

Is there a beauty that is so overwhelming that, for those who haven't been prepared, it becomes destructive?

The final paragraphs:

On the golden steps in the golden, light, as golden shape danced a dream beyond the limits of all imagination, danced and drew the music to herself until a sigh of yearning, yearning which became a hope and a torment, went through the hearts of living things on a thousand worlds.

Edges of the golden scene faded raggedly  and unevenly into black.  The gold dimmed down to a pale gold-silver sheen and then to silver, last of all to white.  The dancer who had been golden was now a forlorn white-pink figure standing, quiet and fatigued, on the immense white steps.  The  applause of a thousand worlds roared in upon her.

She looked blindly at them.  The dance had overwhelmed her., too.  Their applause could mean nothing.  The dance was an end in itself.  She would have to live, somehow, until she danced again.  

As in many of Cordwainer Smith's stories, the focus is on the effects of technology and scientific advances on people rather than on the technology or science.  People are most important in his stories.

Cordwainer Smith is one of those sadly neglected SF short story writers from the late 1950s through the 1970s.  While many of his short works take place in a common universe, and several novels have been constructed by linking his short stories, he never got to the point of writing a series of novels that are so popular today, or perhaps required today.

I hope that maybe some visitors here will take a look at his stories.  It will be rewarding.


  1. Somehow I missed reading Cordwainer Smith. I want to read some of his works.

    The best science fiction is usually about people.

    These questions relating to beauty are such an age old ones. Examining them in the context of science fiction and the future has a lot of potential. Thus this sounds very appealing to me.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      That's not surprising. CS never was pushed by publishers, and he mostly wrote short stories, which publishers will not spend money publicizing.

      Many of his few novels which I have read are really fix-ups of his short stories, like Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.

      The story asks questions, some of which I tried to bring out.

  2. You've persuaded me. I will see if the library has some CS waiting there for me. Your contemplation of beauty has me ready to offer a knee-jerk, broad-brush response: beauty is only found in unspoiled Nature but hardly ever in human beings or their artifacts. I would go a step further and suggest beauty only exists within Platonic forms; all that we can see or imagine are only representations of the original forms. Still, as human beings we cannot resist attempting the representation.

    Forgive the babbling. I am in that kind of mood this morning. I really need to become more disciplined about my thinking and writing. Well, perhaps future utterances will be more sensible and responsible. Onward!

    1. R.T.,

      Chuckle. . .
      I have planned for decades to become more disciplined in my thinking and writing.

      I would be very interested in your linking of the Platonic forms to the story after you have read it.

  3. A digression (i.e., more about Plato and forms):

    Somewhere in all of that is what I was attempting to say about beauty as an ineffable, transcendent quality. Still, kudos for all artists (writers included) who attempt the reproduction.

    End of digression.

    1. R.T.,

      Thanks for the link: a very clear and lucid explanation.

      Yes. Somebody once said something that making the journey was more important that reaching the destination.

    2. "happiness is a journey not a destination": Buddha, among many others... at one point i read all of C. Smith but now all i can recollect is one about little fuzzy people... i remember thinking he was a good writer. though...

    3. Mudpuddle,
      Buddha? Might have gotten it from him. Sounds right.

      All of Cordwainer Smith's works? You are way ahead of me. The Fuzzy people might be the cat people-"The Ballad of Lost C'mell" perhaps.

    4. yes, that was it... a question i've been pondering of late: what good does it do to say you've read a book if you don't remember it? which boils down to: what good is reading? i know it makes people more knowledgeable and more aware of how the world works, but is it useful? i guess i think it's just one of those questions that really can't be answered: i read because it's interesting and occasionally challenging; but i can't think of a way to actually justify it in any way on a social basis...

    5. Mudpuddle,

      Is reading useful?

      Reading provides enjoyment or pleasure or/and information, which I find very useful or helpful.

      Even if you don't consciously remember what you've read, it has still affected you in some way--a slight or even a great change in perspective, regardless of whether you remember it or even remember reading it.

      When I begin a book, I never think about whether I will remember it in the future. Reading is a "now" thing for me.

    6. well said. i guess i was a bit down; your comment was very helpful. tx...

    7. Mudpuddle,

      Happens to me also.

  4. Hey Fred.
    Unrelated: Have you seen the film Love and Friendship, based on Jane Austen's Lady Susan? You must. I've just watched it and it's hilarious.

    1. Di,

      Not yet, but Netflix assures me it will soon be available.