The Ballad of Lost C'Mell
Smith was a pen-name for Paul Linebarger, author of the 1948 classic,
Linebarger, as one might suspect, had worked
for the Central Intelligence Agency (as did another author due for
perusal in this series). Thanks to his father’s political activity,
Smith had ties to central players in Chinese politics from a very
young age: his godfather was
he was friends with
Smith’s science fiction was influenced by Chinese literature, which
gave his fiction a style unusual in the western SF of the time.
is comparatively unknown today. He died young, when he was only
fifty-three. That was more than half a century ago. His body of work
is comparatively small; his science fiction fits into two volumes.
The Cordwainer Smith
which “honors under-read science fiction and fantasy authors with
the intention of drawing renewed attention to the winners,” was
named for him
best known work is set several thousand years in the future, when
humans have colonized the galaxy under the benevolent or at least
firm hand of the Instrumentality. For humans, it’s a utopia. For
the artificial Underpeople, created to serve humans and without any
rights at all, it is not. “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” was
deemed worthy of inclusion in The
Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two, which
honored noteworthy stories denied a shot at the
because they predated that award. How does it stand up in the eyes of
my young readers?
Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer
story did that thing where it is set so far in the future that
anything is possible. If parts of the setting don't quite make sense,
it's because humans achieved godlike power and immortality and then
got bored with it and recreated a world like the old world but with
whatever tweaks the author wants.
was a very "white saviour" kind of story, where the
suffering slaves needed one of the intelligent overlords to decide
they needed saving. It was very condescending to C'Mell throughout.
Even when complimenting her, it was couched in sexist (and I suppose
story was redeemed for me with the line "He had always been
madly in love- with justice itself." Just so over the top. I
loved it. Made the rest of
the story worth reading, and really brought Jestecost into focus as
someone who really didn't know what he was getting into, he was just
a man child in love with the idea of justice. It made his other
thoughts and actions make sense. As is often the case in stories like
this, the decadent and all-powerful human race are childish in their
desires and actions.
reminded me of A World Out of Time
which I found in a used book store in high school. Similar "so
far in the future I can do whatever I want" setting. Similar
treatment of female characters. I'm not sure why it is so hard to
write women as actual people, but clearly a lot of authors struggle
like these are the reason why I don't read science fiction. There are
so many elements to sift through, they feel like window dressing or
frivolous details designed to hide the fact that the plot is kind of
bad and doesn't really make sense.
understanding of the plot is that a half-human-half-cat dies, his
(super hot) daughter meets with the all-knowing leader who takes pity
on the half-humans. The daughter falls in love with him after saying
a few sentences to him, then acting as a telekinetic channel for the
telekinetic half-human God. The leader and God (and daughter when
she's not acting as the telekinetic channel) come up with a plan to
improve the lives of half-humans, who are not kindly looked upon. It
involves showing the telekinetic god all their secrets which are
stored in a giant magic 8 ball called The Bell. The plan works, the
half-humans are allowed to become reserved grade citizens instead of
half-slaves, which I think means they're less uneven than before, but
still not as good as regular-humans.
super hot daughter becomes fat and old, and then she dies (but she
has many super-hot daughters who go into the same line of 1960s era
flight attendant/playboy bunny greeting work that their mother went
into, but had to get out of when she became old and fat, even though
their status in society has improved and by all accounts they
shouldn't have to go into those types of lines of work anymore). The
all-knowing leader dies many years later, and on his deathbed the
telekinetic God tells him that the super-hot daughter loved him.
easiest part of the plot to understand is that the half-human
daughter was super hot when she was young. Then she becomes old and
fat. She was in love with the all-knowing guy, who knew everything
except that the super-hot daughter was in love with him. What a
I just misunderstood the plot and it's actually a good story! But to
me it was pulpy, confusing, and full of out-dated ideas.
story was much more a romance story of unrequited love than a sci-fi
one. It opens and ends with a focus on the romance, although the
middle is focused elsewhere.
the focus is on emotions and politics, the story ages quite well. And
it helps that it’s set in a distant future, not a near one. There’s
very little reference to specific technology or terms. Unlike other
stories, this fits with the general tone of a story set in a world in
which everyone receives telepathic brain scans at random: the less
specific your thoughts and words, the better.
only thing that seemed a bit dated was the drawing of the table of
Lords, Lady and C’mell. The clothing and styles reminded me of a
different time. Who wears a tux to work?
general, it reminded me of The Minority Report or 1984 with its Bell
system that can look through minds and cameras at superhuman speed.
But on the whole, this story is original enough to stand on its own
in my mind. The ending did remind me strongly of the meta-sentiment
at the end of Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet (“So long lives this, and
this gives life to thee”), and I think it’s to the story’s
advantage that only one verse of the Ballad of Lost C’Mell is
actually in the story. Much better to leave it to the reader’s
story was very good, and intrigued me enough to look up more about
it. The idea of animal-people and especially cat-people drew me in,
so I could be biased in liking the story this much.
dislike this story a lot, and for several different reasons.
found the narration style very frustrating. I found the constant
reminders of the events in the future that the characters don’t
know about annoying and they took me out of the story. Beyond that,
the way that the narrator described and objectified C’Mell,
constantly reminding us that she’s a “girly girl” or how her
clothes are revealing kept reminding me that while the title implies
that the story is supposedly about her, it is all through a
distinctly male gaze.
admit I was skeptical of this story before I even had really started
it. There is two sentence introduction before the title which warned
me that the story would be using romantic love as an inherently human
characteristic. This story definitely uses that trope. Tying romantic
love to humanity dehumanizes aromantic people, and relying on that
idea is enough to make me dislike the story for that alone.
didn’t feel like C’Mell got to be a real character. She was used
as a tool, and there to be objectified and to fall in love with the
guy. She even gets blamed when the clothes we are told are the only
clothes she is allowed to wear are distracting. The only time we get
to see how she feels or thinks is in relation to how she feels about
him, and the events are more centred around how people use her than
on what she could accomplish. We’re told she’s intelligent, but
it seems she’s only remembered for falling in love.
don’t like that this feels like a story that is focused on how
wonderful it is that a member of the oppressive group decided that he
should give marginalized people some rights. It’s great that the
overall message is that giving oppressed people rights is a good
thing, but I’d rather see stories centring the marginalized
characters instead of praising allies for doing the bare minimum of
recognizing that they’re people. Especially since this story seems
to frame that as more of an ideological debate combined with fear of
revolt, rather than him actually caring about the people involved.
I disliked this story for its style and its content. The insistence
of romantic love as tied to humanity that was thrown in could have
been easily avoided, and just makes me that much more frustrated.