It’s no secret that I love science fiction. I’ve written on various science fiction works on this site before, and have a second website that is largely dedicated to writings on science fiction (Eclectic Theist). I’ve been on a journey discovering vintage science fiction. Cordwainer Smith is a major figure in that scene, and for good reason. Though he died fairly young, he churned out a number of short stories, novellas, and one novel, almost all of which are set in a shared universe spanning thousands of years. Smith was a Christian who pushed the boundaries in his fiction, using the strangeness of his world.
“The Dead Lady of Clown Town” is one of the stories set in his larger universe. It is intentionally resonant with the story of Joan of Arc, down to a character named D’Joan. In this world, there are the underpeople–animals who have been cross-bred or genetically altered to express various human features–whether physical or mental. The underpeople are used as, essentially, slave labor. They’re discarded and tossed aside whenever their usefulness is undercut. At one point, Smith writes of hospitals for humans that stand empty even as the underpeople are desperate for their care. The reason the hospitals are empty is because the underpeople aren’t allowed to be treated in them. They’re underpeople, after all.
The climax of the story has D’Joan being burned alive, but even as she burns, she cries out in love for those who burn her. The other underpeople had risen up with her, crying out and embracing people, calling out that they loved them. The love the underpeople bring unlock all possibilities. Robots come to be aware of their selves; Lords and Ladies are horrified or delighted by turns. Humans run in terror; while others stand around in shock. It’s a dizzying, poignant scene that, even more than 50 years later, evokes images of resistance.
The resistance of the underpeople is one of love. They reach out and embrace those who would seek to hate or even destroy them. Their resistance is built upon a powerful cry that resonates with that of forgiveness and hope rather than hatred and injustice. The underpeople cry “love; love!” and they die smiling. It’s a stunning scene, and one that we cannot help but see parallels throughout time. Smith published this story in 1964, in the heart of the Civil Rights era. It is impossible to not see parallels with Martin Luther King Jr.’s resistance movement and his nonviolence, even while calling out injustice in the strongest terms.
But the resistance of the underpeople is transformational: it changes their whole society, as well as everyone it touches. If we truly desire a just society, we must have a society that is capable of changing rather than rejecting. When those we’ve designated as the “other” reach out to us for embrace, we must not reject them. We must treat them as we wish to be treated.
Set in the context of Smith’s other stories, this is a story that sets off the founding of a religion based on equality of all sentient beings. It’s a beautiful, hopeful future envisioned by Smith. In our own time, as resistance to injustice builds, we have powerful voices also rising up to cry out for those who are downtrodden. May it ever be.
“We the Underpeople” – Cordwainer Smith and Humanity in the Future– I look at Smith’s vision for the future of humanity, good and bad; bleak and hopeful.
Popular Books– Check out my other posts on popular books, including several other science fiction works. (Scroll down for more.)
Cordwainer Smith– Another blogger writes on the themes found throughout Cordwainer Smith’s science fiction.
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