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‘Scanners Live in Vain’ as realistic SF

Discussion of Cordwainer Smith SF story, arguing that the pain-of-space is based on forgotten psychological issues in air travel, and concerns about worse ones in space travel, which were partially vindicated by the existence of interesting psychological changes in astronauts.

Cordwainer Smith’s classic SF short story “Scanners Live in Vain” is remembered in part for its use of the space-madness trope, “the Great Pain of Space”, usually interpreted symbolically/psychologically by critics. I discuss the state of aerospace medicine in 1945 and subsequent research on “the breakaway effect”, “the overview effect”, and other unusual psychological states induced by air & space travel, and suggest Smith’s “the pain of space” is more founded on SF-style speculation & extrapolation of contemporary science/technology and anxieties than is appreciated due to the obscurity of the effects and the relative benignity of the subsequent best documented effects.

Quirky but intense, one of the most cited stories of SF author Cordwainer Smith was his inventive 19451 short story “Scanners Live in Vain” (fulltext; TvTropes), set in Smith’s “Instrumentality of Mankind” fiction universe. The story depicts a member of a guild of men surgically modified to sever their brains from their senses and who control their body mechanically, through observation; the purpose of their guild is to enable interstellar travel as otherwise outer space drives humans insane & suicidal (the “Great Pain of Space”); and how the member deals with a technological breakthrough which defeats the pain of space and renders obsolete the guild & all its sacrifices.

I have noticed that SF authors seem to receive too little credit for the science part of “science fiction” and that critics tend to downplay or ignore how concepts or themes are rooted in science & technology; a SF author doesn’t have to provide detailed proofs and equations, like Greg Egan does for his Orthogonal trilogy, or detailed bibliographies of specific sources, like Peter Watts, for this to be the case, as even “soft” SF authors, like Frank Herbert (as I give several examples of in “Genetics and Eugenics in Frank Herbert’s Dune), draw more on contemporary thought than is typically appreciated, especially as time passes and the ideas (usually wrong because—being the best kind for exciting new science fiction—highly speculative or pseudoscience) fall into obscurity.

The “pain of space” is interpreted psychologically by all literary critics, but I am not convinced. Looking back on the early Space Age, it may be another example of a SF idea becoming symbolized by ignorance.

“Scanners Live in Vain”

The Great Pain of Space was discovered by early space explorers going out into deep space, and never returning, having been driven mad and suicidal by the void inflicting agony on the human body, requiring total deprivation:

“. . . and when the first men to go Up and Out went to the Moon, what did they find?”

“Nothing”, responded the silent chorus of lips.

“Therefore they went further, to Mars and to Venus. The ships went out year by year, but they did not come back until the Year One of Space. Then did a ship come back with the First Effect. Scanners, I ask you, what is the First Effect?”

“No one knows. No one knows.”

“No one will ever know. Too many are the variables. By what do we know the First Effect?”

“By the Great Pain of Space”, came the chorus.

“And by what further sign?”

“By the need, oh the need for death.”

Vomact again: “And who stopped the need for death?”

“Henry Haberman conquered the first effect, in the Year 3 of Space.”

“And, Scanners, I ask you, what did he do?”

“He made the habermans.”

“How, O Scanners, are habermans made?”

“They are made with the cuts. The brain is cut from the heart, the lungs. The brain is cut from the ears, the nose. The brain is cut from the mouth, the belly. The brain is cut from desire, and pain. The brain is cut from the world. Save for the eyes. Save for the control of the living flesh…They live in the Great Pain while ordinary men sleep in the cold cold sleep of the transit…They make men live in the place where men need desperately to die.”

…What could any Other know of the Up-and-Out? What Other could look at the biting acid beauty of the stars in open Space? What could they tell of the Great Pain, which started quietly in the marrow, like an ache, and proceeded by the fatigue and nausea of each separate nerve cell, brain cell, touchpoint in the body, until life itself became a terrible aching hunger for silence and for death?

…“Is it true that you have conquered the Great Pain?”

Stone hesitated, seeking words for an answer.

“Quick, can you tell me how you have done it, so that I may believe you?”

“I have loaded ships with life.”


“Life. I don’t know what the Great Pain is, but I did find that in the experiments, when I sent out masses of animals or plants, the life in the center of the mass lived longest. I built ships—small ones, of course—and sent them out with rabbits, with monkeys—”

“Those are Beasts?”

“Yes. With small Beasts. And the Beasts came back unhurt. They came back because the walls of the ships were filled with life. I tried many kinds, and finally found a sort of life which lives in the waters. Oysters. Oysterbeds. The outermost oysters died in the great pain. The inner ones lived. The passengers were unhurt.”

“But they were Beasts?”

“Not only Beasts. Myself.”


“I came through Space alone. Through what you call the Up-and-Out, alone. Awake and sleeping. I am unhurt.”

It is an example of the gothic & surreal fantastical elements with an almost visual intensity that render Smith’s SF unique, and earned descriptions like “sheer originality of concept” for the pain of space and the guild founded to deal with it (and later, speculation that Smith was also “Kirk Allen” & derived story elements from hallucinations of future lives).

The pain of space is generally interpreted as reifying a metaphorical or philosophical reaction to space or Smith’s own life at the time (a theme that would appear in other works as well, see TvTropes’s “Space Madness”), due to the overall theme that the other members of the guild had themselves become insane (in a moral sense) due to having been severed from their senses in a classic ‘mind vs body/heart’ conflict. The SF Encyclopedia describes the surgery as “with an effect on their behavior that resembles severe autism”, and D’Ammassa’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (pg324) comments “Smith examines a variety of themes in the story: the conflict between duty to a small group as opposed to society at large, the unfortunate consequences of divorcing emotion from reason and compassion from action.” Hellekson (The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, pg87):

The Great Pain of Space and Martel’s personal feelings of panic and despair are more mature expressions of the young Paul Linebarger’s [Cordwainer Smith] terror, when Smith’s self-understanding and maturity allowed him to write of the thing that as an adolescent he simply feared. Most critics have read the Great Pain of Space as a metaphorical working of the author’s psychological despair, though I would also link it to the terror of death that Paul Linebarger expressed sixteen years before he wrote “Scanners”. Perhaps Smith’s fundamental fear of the comprehension of death drove this psychological despair, which was likely exacerbated by his endemic health problems. Elms, in his entry on Cordwainer Smith in James Gunn’s New Encyclopedia of science Fiction (1988), notes that “Scanners” is a “story remarkable for its depiction of the desperate steps necessary to control the psychological pain induced by long-distance space travel” (422), although I would note that in “Scanners”, the pain unprotected spacefarers experience is real and physical; this real pain is read as psychological. Gary K. Wolfe, in his analysis of “The Game of Rat and Dragon2, notes that “the ‘pain-of-space’ itself…and human vulnerability to the dragons are further evidences of man’s physical and psychological vulnerability and alienation in space” (“Mythic Structures”, 148).3

These seem like reasonable interpretations. After all, everyone is well aware that obviously humans can go to space without problem & spend years in orbit: while there are negative health effects like weakened bones or cardiovascular systems (reduced blood), and occasional acute issues like under high acceleration or motion sickness, or psychological issues related to stress & confinement & lack of nature, and well-understood issues of ordinary radiation from cosmic rays or the sun, there is certainly no “Great Pain of Space”. It is a fantasy element, a romantic SF metaphor intended to be reflective of primitive fears of the unknown & personal isolation. Or is it?

Leprechaun Hunting and Historical Context

A claim which appears false may be the final link in a long chain of transmission in which the original facts get steadily rewritten, exaggerated, and warped. Many false claims, or “leprechauns”, turn out to have started as a reasonable modest claim—perhaps claiming to be no more than just an anecdote—which then becomes warped into a universal generalization by the game of telephone (often by authors not reading the citations they use). Similarly, just because we know “the pain of space” is false doesn’t mean that Smith might not have started with something real which we have long since discarded and can no longer recognize the seed of.

Psychology of Space Travel, circa 1945

This is Major Tom to Ground Control,
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today,
For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world.
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

David Bowie, “Space Oddity” (1969)

In 1945, knowledge of outer space was scant. No one had gone to outer space and returned alive, neither man nor ape nor dog. The US and Russian programs were only just starting up and competing for the products of the Nazi rocketry program. Pictures taken from space would not be available until a year later in 1946 using a V-2 (and verifying that at least some machinery would work in space), and any life form would not be launched until fruit flies survived a trip up on a V-2 rocket in 1947, 2 years later; a monkey would not be launched for 3 years. (The roll call of US animal experiments is instructive: Albert I in June 1948, who died of suffocation; II died of parachute failure, III died in an explosion, IV & V after more parachute failure, VI 2 hours after landing as did 2 of the accompanying mice likely from heat, Gordo another parachute failure, Able of botched surgery—leaving Able’s companion Miss Baker the first monkey to travel to space in 1959, 11 years after Albert I, and live out a normal lifespan.) And phenomena related to Van Allen radiation belt, “ring currents”, had been hypothesized for decades (Stern1989) but the belt would not be measured for another 13 years.

And there was precedent for unpredictable, chaotic, psychological effects.

The Breakaway Effect

I was fascinated to read in the chapter “Star Crazy” of Roach’s2010 Packing for Mars (review) a lengthy discussion of how even up the ’60s there were serious concerns—like in Smith’s story—about whether astronauts could remain sane in space rather than suicidal, and this was not fringe speculation but mainstream & reasonable extrapolation from disturbing datapoints in aviation about the break-off phenomenon in airplane pilots at high altitude:

There was a great deal of conjecture at the time—both at the Soviet space agency and at NASA—about the unique psychological consequences of breaching the cosmos. Would hurtling into “the black”, as pilots used to call it, blow the astronaut’s mind? Hear the ominous words of psychiatrist Eugene Brody, speaking at the 1959 Symposium on Space Psychiatry: “Separation from the earth with all of its unconscious symbolic significance for man,…might in theory at least be expected…to produce—even in a well-selected and trained pilot—something akin to the panic of schizophrenia.”

There was worry that Gagarin might come unhinged and sabotage the history-making mission. It was enough of a worry that the powers-that-be locked the manual controls of the Vostok capsule before liftoff. What if something went awry and communications went dead and Pilot-Cosmonaut #1 needed to take control of the capsule? His superiors had thought about that too, and seemingly turned to game show hosts for advice. Gagarin was given a sealed envelope containing the secret combination to unlock the controls.

The concerns were not altogether fatuous. In a study published in the April 1957 issue of Aviation Medicine [Clark & Graybiel1957], 35% of 137 pilots interviewed reported having experienced a strange feeling of detachment from Earth while flying at high altitudes, almost always during a solo flight. “I feel like I have broken the bonds from the terrestrial sphere”, said one pilot.

The phenomenon was pervasive enough for psychologists to give it a name: the “breakaway effect”. For a majority of these pilots, the feeling wasn’t one of panic, but of euphoria. Only 18 of the 137 characterized their feelings as fear or anxiety. “It seems so peaceful, it seems like you are in another world.” “I feel like a giant.” “A king”, said another. Three commented that they felt nearer to God. A pilot named Mal Ross, who set a series of altitude records in experimental aircraft in the late 1950s, twice reported an eerie “feeling of exultation, of wanting to fly on and on.”

The year the Aviation Medicine article ran, Colonel Joe Kittinger ascended to 96,000 feet in an upright, phone-booth-sized sealed capsule suspended beneath a helium balloon. With his oxygen dangerously low, Kittinger was ordered by his superior, David Simons, to begin his descent. “COME AND GET ME”, replied Kittinger, letter by letter in Morse code. Kittinger says it was a joke, but Simons didn’t take it that way. (Morse code has always been a tough medium for humor.) In his memoir Man High, Simons recalls thinking that “the weird and little understood breakaway phenomenon could be taking hold of Kittinger’s mind,…that he…was gripped in this strange reverie and was hellbent on flying on and on without regard for the consequences.”

Simons compared the breakaway phenomenon to “the deadly raptures of the deep.” “Rapture of the deep” is a medical condition—a feeling of calm and invulnerability that can steal over a diver, usually at depths below 100 feet. It is more prosaically known as nitrogen narcosis, or as the Martini Effect (one drink for every 33 feet below 65 feet). Simons speculated that one day soon aerospace physicians would be talking about a condition “known as the deadly rapture of space.”

These breakaway effects do not include all the other psychological effects of air travel, such as spatial disorientation, Charles Bonnet syndrome, hallucinated gremlins (reported by many pilots, such as Charles Lindbergh on his transatlantic flight4, who also reported hallucinating entire landmasses5), sensory deprivation, UFOs, or outcomes of the crash (eg. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is often connected to his post-crash hallucinations in the Sahara recounted in Wind, Sand and Stars).

Space Euphoria & Overview Effect

Roach2010, continued, on the overview effect:

He was right, though NASA preferred the less flowery term “space euphoria.” “Some NASA shrinks”, wrote astronaut Gene Cernan in his memoir, “had warned that when I looked down and saw the Earth speeding past so far below, I might be swamped by space euphoria.” [see also the “overview effect”] Cernan would soon be undertaking a spacewalk—history’s third—during Gemini IX. The psychologists were nervous because the first two spacewalkers had expressed not only an odd euphoria but a worrisome disinclination to go back inside the capsule. “I felt excellent and in a cheerful mood and reluctant to leave free space”, wrote Alexei Leonov, the first human to, in 1965, float freely in the vacuum of space, attached to his Voskhod capsule by an air hose. “As for the so-called psychological barrier that was supposed to be insurmountable by man preparing to confront the cosmic abyss alone, I not only did not sense any barrier, but even forgot that there could be one.”

Four minutes into NASA’s first spacewalk, Gemini IV astronaut Ed White gushed that he felt “like a million dollars.” He struggled to find the words for it. “I’ve…it’s just tremendous.” There are moments when the mission transcript reads like the transcript of a 1970s encounter group. Here are White and his commander, James McDivitt, a couple of Air Force guys, after it’s over:

WHITE: That was the most natural feeling, Jim.
McDIVITT: …You looked like you were in your mother’s womb.

NASA’s concern was not that their astronaut was euphoric, but that euphoria might have overtaken good sense. During White’s twenty minutes of bliss, Mission Control repeatedly tries to break in. Finally the capsule communicator, Gus Grissom, gets through to McDivitt.

GRISSOM: Gemini 4, get back in!
McDIVITT: They want you to come back in now.
WHITE: Back in?
McDIVITT: Back in.
GRISSOM: Roger, we’ve been trying to talk to you for awhile here.
WHITE: Aw, Cape, let me just [take] a few pictures.
McDIVITT: No, back in. Come on.
WHITE: …Listen, you could almost not drag me in, but I’m coming.

But he wasn’t. Two more minutes passed. McDivitt starts to plead.

McDIVITT: Just come on in…
WHITE: Actually, I’m trying to get a better picture.
McDIVITT: No, come on in.
WHITE: I’m trying to get a picture of the spacecraft now.
McDIVITT: Ed, come on in here!

Another minute passes before White makes a move toward the hatch, saying, “This is the saddest moment of my life.” Rather than worrying about astronauts not wanting to come back in, the space agencies should have been worrying about them not being able to. It took White twenty-five minutes to get back through the hatch and safely in.

…After Ed White’s spacewalk, reports of space euphoria were rare, and soon the psychologists stopped worrying. They had something new to worry on: “EVA height vertigo.” (EVA is short for “extravehicular activity”, meaning spacewalking.) The image of Earth rushing by some 200 miles below can cause paralyzing fear. Mir astronaut Jerry Linenger wrote in his memoir about the “dreadful and persistent” feeling that he was “plummeting earthward…at ten times or a hundred times faster” than he’d experienced during parachute free falls. Which he was. (The difference, of course, is that the astronaut is falling in a huge circle around Earth and doesn’t hit the ground.)

“White-knuckled, I gripped the handrail…”, wrote Linenger of his agonized moments on the end of Mir’s 50-foot telescoping arm, “forcing myself to keep my eyes open and not scream.” I once listened to a Hamilton Sundstrand suit engineer tell the story of an unnamed spacewalker exiting the hatch and then turning to wrap both spacesuited arms around a colleague’s legs.

…Aerospace biologists had established that humans can function for a few seconds without gravity. But what about an hour, a day, a week? “People ask, Why?” says Britz of the era of the spacefaring chimp. “Mary, we just didn’t know.” What were the longer-term effects of space travel—not only of weightlessness, but of cosmic radiation? (High-energy atomic particles have been zinging through space at ferocious speeds since the Big Bang. Earth’s magnetic field protects us by deflecting cosmic rays, but in space, these invisible bullets smash unimpeded through cells, causing mutations. It’s serious enough that astronauts are classified as radiation workers.)

Every mode of travel has its signature mental aberration. Eskimo hunters traveling alone on still, glassy waters are sometimes stricken by “kayak angst”—delusions that their boat is flooding or that the front end is either sinking or rising up out of the water. Of related interest: “A Preliminary Report of Kayak-Angst Among the Eskimo of West Greenland” [see also Amering & Katschnig1990] includes a discussion of Eskimo suicide motives and notes that 4 out of the 50 suicides investigated were elderly Eskimos who “took their lives as a direct result of uselessness due to old age.” No mention was made of whether they cast themselves adrift on ice floes, as you sometimes hear, and whether travel by ice floe has its own unique anxiety syndrome.

In Moon Dust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth (review), Smith2005, Smith was able to interview almost all of the surviving Apollo astronauts and discussed with them the psychological experiences & effects of space travel, ranging from euphoria to religious epiphanies to musical hallucinations to divorce:

On the flight from England, I was lost in a brilliant collection of J. G. Ballard short stories called Memories of the Space Age. Written between 1962 and 1988, most of them revolve around the Cape, and Cocoa Beach in particular, which is where the space programme’s human cargo lived in the run-up to missions. Ballard’s thrillingly jaundiced view of the Space Age is that it constituted a crime against evolution, a blind, hubristic leap into a realm where we do not belong, where all we can do is sow our disease and spread the human stain ever more thinly across the Universe. Accordingly, in his stories we find the Cape abandoned, laid waste by microbes from Mars as dead astronauts circle the earth in their capsule coffins, or serving as a beacon for falling space debris, roamed only by irradiated scavengers seeking icons in mangled bits of spaceship or spaceman bones. We find space explorers going insane midflight, haunting a whole world with their “nightmare ramblings.” In “A Question of Re-Entry”, Ballard’s protagonist hunts for a capsule lost in the Amazon forest, amid growing anxiety that “the entire space programme was a symptom of some inner unconscious malaise afflicting mankind, and in particular the Western technocracies … the missing capsule [was] itself a fragment of a huge disintegrating fantasy.” In “News from the Sun”, I find: “Certainly, the unhappy lives of the astronauts bore all the signs of a deepening sense of guilt. The relapse into alcoholism, silence, and pseudo-mysticism, and the mental breakdowns, suggested profound anxieties about the moral and biological rightness of space exploration.”

…Swaddled in the cosmos on the way back from the Moon, Edgar Mitchell had what he describes as an “epiphany”, in which he glimpsed an intelligence in the Universe and felt connected to it, like a lamp suddenly plugged in and switched on after an age hidden in darkness. In that moment, the void seemed to him alive and his description of it reminds me of the English poet-artist William Blake’s ecstatic vision of a Universe in which “every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.” And what he said to himself was, precisely: Wow.

He was fascinated with it, with this feeling of transcendence, which he intuitively related to the euphoric states other civilizations have conjured with ritual, drugs, contemplation—gods—and when he got back, he left NASA and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), named for the Greek-derived word meaning “of, relating to or based on the intellect.” His aim was to reconcile science with religion—and the point at which they met, or at least the bridge between them, he postulated, consists in that greatest of all mysteries, consciousness itself. Thus, the key to the Universe is contained in our own minds, and vice versa, the result being that for 32 years now, the Moonwalker Dr. Mitchell, who has two bachelor of science degrees to add to his doctorate from MIT, has been searching for this key. People who pass through his gravity field frequently characterize IONS as a kind of New Age cult, with Mitchell the Space Age Colonel Kurtz, the hero who entered into the heart of a darkness even Conrad and Coppola couldn’t conceive, and never came back.

He didn’t experience the “comedown” that some of the other Moonwalkers did?

“No, I tend to think that what I’ve done in the thirty years since is more important than going to the Moon. The Moon—okay, that was powerful, it’s history, groundbreaking stuff of the twentieth century. But for me personally, I think pioneering what I’ve done here with noetics will in the long run be a more important advancement.”

Strange, I observe: Charlie Duke says the same thing about his church work. Edgar Mitchell’s eyes light up.

“See, the point is, Jim Irwin, Charlie Duke, myself and others had the same experience, I think. But you express it in terms of your own belief system, your own experience and your training. And me being more of a philosopher and scientist, I looked beyond the easy explanation of religion. Alan Bean—a lovely fella—he expressed his in his artwork. And even the ones who haven’t shown outward signs of change”—he leans forward and jabs a finger at the space just beyond my right elbow—“that doesn’t mean they didn’t feel it, too.”

Test pilots, he goes on to note with a smirk, “have never been noted for introspection or spontaneous eloquent expression”, but he does believe that “it’s significant that many of the men pioneering space flight began to express more openly a more subtle side of their personalities after returning home.” Even Shepard loosened and a LM deputy programme manager is also on record as saying that the lunar astronauts did change; became less outgoing, more pensive. Wouldn’t their training as test pilots, with its emphasis on self-control, have militated against being affected by what was happening around them? Mitchell thinks this is a misconception, saying:

“My experience taught me to open up my emotions, or at least to become more aware, to become more sensitive to what’s going on in the body. It’s quite true that in that business you have to learn to manage your emotions. But of course, that’s what the mystic disciplines are about, too. That’s what’s taught by the Tibetan Buddhists—and I greatly admire their scholarship … it is about learning to manage your emotions.”

We talk about family and the huge divorce rate in the Astronaut Corps. At the beginning of the Sixties, marital breakdown still came with shame; worse, NASA considered it bad for the image of the programme and it was made clear that divorces would cost flights. Yet even NASA couldn’t resist the social revolution that was ushered in by the contraceptive pill. By the end of the 1970s, the divorce rate would be five times what it had been in 1961, with the highest rates in the nation settling on the Cape Kennedy area of Florida.

…As with subsequent flights, Apollo 8 bowled along sideways, like a silver rolling pin, spinning slowly to distribute the sun’s intense heat. From the craft’s angle of approach the Moon was in darkness, so for the first two days the astronauts saw only the Earth shrinking behind them and a coy black void ahead, bereft of stars and growing, until finally they were drifting engine-first around the far side, preparing for the ‘burn’ that would slow them into lunar orbit. Still they saw nothing—until suddenly and without warning an immense arc of sun-drenched lunar surface appeared in their windows and the three men got the shocks of their lives, as the ethereal disc they and the rest of humanity had known up to then revealed itself as an awesome globe, cool and remote, without sound or motion, magisterial but issuing no invitation whatsoever. So shocked were the crew that commander Borman was forced to rein in their excitement for the sake of the burn, and while the astronauts have forgotten much about the journeys they took, none has any trouble recalling this dramatic moment: indeed, those who are temperamentally disposed to acknowledging fear will tell you that it was an eerie and intimidating sight, which the crew of Apollo 8 seemed haunted by. Upon their return, they described a forbidding and inhospitable world. It was the Earth that sang to them from afar.

…The best bit—and this is one of my favourite bits of the whole space programme—is when Cap-Com Gus Grissom, the voice of Mission Control that day, orders White back into the craft and the spacewalker just can’t bring himself to go. Broadcast live to radio at the time, the exchange captivated listeners. The third person involved is Commander Jim McDivitt, speaking from inside the spaceship. We come in at the end, which goes like this: [transcript; some EVA footage; Apollo 11: Flight to the Moon, full album; track “A4: Ed White—Walks In Space”, 4m56s-7m30s: ]

  • GRISSOM: “Gemini 4—get back in!”

  • (White pretends he hasn’t heard. He’s looking at the Earth.)

  • WHITE: “What are we over now, Jim?”

  • MCDIVITT: “I don’t know, we’re coming over the west now, and they want you to come back in.”

  • WHITE: “Aw, Cape, let me just find a few pictures.”

  • MCDIVITT: “No, back in. Come on.”

  • (Pause.)

  • WHITE: “Coming in. Listen, you could almost not drag me in, but I’m coming …”

  • (A few more minutes of stalling by the reluctant spacewalker, who finally relents.)

  • WHITE: “This is the saddest moment of my life.”

  • MCDIVITT: “Well, you’re going to find a sadder one when we have to come down from this whole thing.”

  • WHITE: “I’m coming.”

  • (Not coming.)

  • MCDIVITT: “Okay … Come on now.”

The saddest moment of his life! Who wouldn’t feel for him? But he had to go back in, because NASA didn’t yet know what floating in space would do to a human being. That he and Grissom had the breath snatched from their lungs in the Apollo 1 fire only months later gives his words an added poignancy. He didn’t have long to live, but he had this, and that it should become music is not so very surprising: Story Musgrave, the experienced shuttle astronaut who trained with the Apollo crews and developed a mystical bent afterwards, claims to have heard music up there. “It was a noble, magnificent music”, he told a reporter in February 2000. “I was a little on the margin … I was walking the edge.”

…One of J. G. Ballard’s stories [“News From The Sun”] contains the striking line: “The best astronauts, Franklin had noticed during his work for NASA, never dreamed …” But before his flight, Charlie had a dream that he and John Young were driving the rover across the lunar surface, when they found another set of tracks. They asked Houston if they could follow them and wound up confronted by another rover, in which sat two people who looked exactly like them, but had been there for thousands of years. The dream was so pure and so vivid that Charlie is apt to call it “one of the most real experiences of my life.” In the event, however, the reality was exciting for Duke but not mystical or spiritual as it was for some. On the flight before (Apollo 15), Jim Irwin had found the crystalline “Genesis Rock”, a 4.15-billion-year-old relic of primordial crust formed in the Moon’s infancy—in geologic terms, mere moments after the solar system itself was born. It just sat there on a rocky pulpit at the edge of a crater, as if it had been waiting for him all that time and he said he felt the presence of God then, heard His voice, and upon returning, he quit NASA to found the High Flight ministry. A year later, he embarked on the first of several expeditions to search for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey, which the novelist Julian Barnes used as a template for one of the short stories [“Project Ararat”] in his book A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. He almost died after a bad fall on Ararat’s slopes in 1982, but lived on until 1991, when a second massive heart attack finally took him. The thing was, everyone had known this was coming, because NASA medics discovered alarming irregularities in his heartbeat while he was on the lunar surface. Despite all the monitoring and all the tests, these had never shown up before. It seemed that the Moon, with her bardic sense of mischief, was playing the equivocator again, revealing Irwin’s calling while simultaneously foretelling his death.

…I ask whether Schmitt thinks that going to the Moon changed him, repeating Alan Bean’s view that all the Moonwalkers came back “more like they already were”, and his face lights up. He says he didn’t know that Bean had said that, but it’s exactly what he, too, has felt for the last thirty years. The only one who went in a direction no one could have imagined, he suggests, was the Apollo 15 commander, David Scott, whose lustrous career was destroyed by the “stamp scandal” which overtook him a few months after his return…

“That’s an interesting question, though, because Jim was deeply affected. For instance, before the Moon, he was a good speaker, but afterwards he was a great one. He really believed. Something real happened to him.”

He then speaks about something which he called his “left seat-right seat” theory, referring to the fact that the commander stood to the left in the lander with the Lunar Module pilot on his right. He sounds reflective for the first time as he notes:

“The six guys in the left seat went down paths you’d have expected, but the six in the right seats went off in all kinds of unexpected directions.”

And I suddenly recall Ed Mitchell saying something similar. In fact he had a name for it. I’d asked whether he thought some of the Moonwalkers had been more open to the experience than others and he answered:

“Well, one thing to note is that most of the guys who were vocal about the depth of the experience were Lunar Module pilots. It’s known phenomenon, from military studies, that the guy in the rear seat of a two-seater aircraft and the guy actually doing the flying have different experiences, because they’re focused on different things. It’s the command phenomenon. The view of the guy who has to be alert and on top of things is different from the guy who’s just along for the ride. So those of us coming back from the Moon who were LM pilots, we weren’t just along for the ride—we had chores—but we didn’t have major responsibilities, because the spacecraft was functioning well. We could take it in and contemplate what we were doing more thoroughly.”

He further added:

“I think that was also true for people back home on Earth, though obviously in a different way. Those pictures of the Earth from the Moon are the most published pictures in the world. And so one has to ask the question: Why is that so? What is that? And to me, it’s because they speak to that spirit of quest that humans have. And to the question ‘Who are we?’”

Yes. Now Scott is talking about Ed and his noetic quest, and Buzz Aldrin with his postflight breakdown … and Alan Bean with his Close Encounters Moon art … and of course Charlie Duke and Jim Irwin, who were directly or indirectly led to their faiths by the Moon. Only Jack Schmitt followed a straight and normal path, and then only if you consider a desire to enter the Senate normal. And for the first time, I fall to reflecting on my own encounters with these men; on the LM pilots’ eagerness to communicate what they’d felt up there and the way it seemed to still live inside them, as against the by-turns maddening and amusing imperviousness of the surviving mission commanders. Armstrong, Young, Cernan, Scott: I can admire them all in different ways, but wouldn’t want them near me if I were a talk-show host or composer of sonnets. Afterwards, I go to find Scott, because I want to know whether he thinks this postflight divergence is attributable to the different experiences of the Moonwalkers—as he seemed to be implying—or whether Deke simply assigned them roles according to character type, with focus and singularity seen as the stuff of leadership. Disingenuous to the last, he pretends not to remember me, while being unable to suppress the spark of recognition in his eye. He nevertheless confirms the first view straightaway.

“No, character doesn’t come into it”, he says. Really? I ask, but he shakes his head firmly. “Character was never an issue.” So he agrees with Ed Mitchell that there was something primal in the experience, at least for those who had the time and mental space to be affected by it? “I think so. Yes.” He leaves a short gap, as though considering this for the first time.

“It’s interesting, isn’t it?”

The Context

So what does this amount to? Historically, air and space travel do have a wide variety of unpredictable effects, mental and physical, good and bad, and to some degree this was known by 1945. We see clearly here a widespread and known fear of the effects of outer space, fears about radiation and suicidal actions (eg. refusing to return to the spacecraft), and parallels in the known extremes of aviation. While not all of this data & speculation was available to Smith in 1945 (for example, the aviation survey was published 12 years later), it is reasonable to suppose that, a well-traveled academic and intelligence operative, he could well have had any of this in mind when he devised his pain of space and all of it is straightforward to extrapolate for the purpose of his story.

It is also of possible interest to note that there is long-standing speculation that Cordwainer Smith, like Philip K. Dick (or perhaps we should mention L. Ron Hubbard’s SF and Dianetics and Church of Scientology?), may well have seen SF as being more than fictions and in fact, ‘memories’ of his future lives, and was the “Kirk Allen” described in psychoanalyst Robert M. Lindner’s 1954 case study “The Jet-Propelled Couch: Part I: The man who traveled through space”/“Part II: Return to Earth” (republished in the 1955 The Fifty-Minute Hour), which lends intriguing possibilities to his heavy use of pseudonyms and interpretation of “the pain of space” (not to mention Elms’s interpretation of Smith talking to his cats & cats in Norstrilia). And would I go too far in noting that Smith’s initial degree was in medieval English literature and the idea of dreaming of the future recalls William Hope Hodgson’s 1912 far-future The Night Land?

So any interpretation of “Scanners Live in Vain” must take this historical scientific context into consideration as a sufficient explanation of the presence of the plot device & its characteristics, and not ignorantly jump to a conclusion that the pain of space must necessarily be entirely metaphorical or symbolic in some way.


See Also

  1. It was written sometime before July 1945, but was only published in 1950 after 4 rejections (first from Astounding for being “too extreme”) and a 2 year delay by the 5th publisher.↩︎

  2. In “The Game of Rat and Dragon” (which briefly mentions Scanners, apparently post-“Scanners Live in Vain” where it refers to normal space pilots/captains), space is not dangerous (“There was something underneath space itself which was alive”) but in the darkness between solar systems lurk psychic monsters which turn ships’ passengers into “lunatics, damaged beyond repair, to be wakened, and fed, and cleaned, and put to sleep, wakened and fed again until their lives were ended.” (The use of cats reminds me of another SF opera, Outlaw Star, specifically, episode 20’s Hanmyo, who fights with a pair of pet cats as copilots.) As in “Scanners Live in Vain” and another striking Smith story, “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons, the solution is another form of life (oysters, cats, and mink respectively). Animals and human-animal hybrids appear repeatedly throughout Smith’s fiction. McGuirk2011 notes the similar dynamic of pain/power inA Planet Named Shayol”, where the “dromozoans” provide immortality simultaneous with such pain that some prisoners volunteer for lobotomizing or eye removal (while the protagonist endures it in his attempt to reform Shayol). In “Think Blue, Count Two”, passengers aboard a generation ship are woken out of hibernation to repair it after the pilot mysteriously dies, and the “little boxes” that prevented fighting are destroyed by a passenger corrupted by crime and envy in space:

    In whispers, in gasps, he told her the story of Old Twenty-two. He told her that people poured out among the stars and that the ancient things inside people woke up, so that the deeps of their minds were more terrible that the blackest depth of space. Space never committed crimes. It just killed. Nature could transmit death, but only man could carry crime from world to world. Without the boxes, they looked into the bottomless depths of their own unknown selves… All in a rush she remembered what Trece had told her about Old Twenty-two, and about what happened to people when they lost their own outsides in space and began making up evil from the people—insides which, after a million and more years of becoming human, still followed them everywhere—even into space itself. This was crime come back to man. She managed to say it to Talatashar, “You are going to commit crimes? On this ship? With me?”

    Continuing the psychological theme, the other passengers are rescued by a small protective plastinated/chemically-fixated (laminated) mouse brain as guardian, which can destroy humans psychosomatically:

    …“I do not exist”, said he, specifically addressing himself to Talatashar, “but if I needed to take out my imaginary pistol and to shoot you in the head with it, my control is so strong that your bone would comply with my command. The hole would appear in your head and your blood and your brains would pour out, just as much as blood is pouring from your hand just now. Look at your hand and believe me, if you wish.”

    Talatashar refused to look. The stranger went on in a very deliberate tone. “No bullet would come from my pistol, no ray, no blast, nothing. Nothing at all. But your flesh would believe me, even if your thoughts did not. Your bone structure would believe me, whether you thought so or not. I am communicating to every separate single cell in your body, to everything which I feel to be alive. If I think bullet at you, your bone will pull aside for the imaginary wound. Your skin will part, your blood will pour out, your brains will splash. They will not do it by physical force but by communication from me. Communication direct, you fool. That may not be real violence, but it serves my purpose just as well. Now do you understand me? Look at your wrist.”

    Talatashar did not avert his eyes from the stranger. In an odd cold voice he said, “I believe you. I guess I am crazy. Are you going to kill me?” “I don’t know”, said the stranger.

  3. Cox2013 (“From the Horse’s Mouth: Speech and Speciesism in Cordwainer Smith and Sheri S. Tepper”) expands on this isolation theme apropos “On The Gem Planet”:

    Genevieve narrates the horse’s story. A dying man paid great sums to guarantee privacy even after death, and built a cabin on Pontoppidan to “live alone, except for his non-human friend” (459). This “friend”, an old palomino stallion, escapes after the man’s death, seeking the company of people.9…He cracks a hoof and wakes in a human hospital…Through their telepathic link, the horse states he is “dying”, despite his near-immortal status. His statement seems paradoxical, but Susan Keaveney clarifies his meaning: “Horses are herd animals: their primary attachment is to the herd, within which they fit into a strict social hierarchy” (445). The horse had been alone with the man for many years, deprived of any herd. While his physical body cannot die, he suffers from deep loneliness, a possible reference to some of Smith’s earlier stories as the “’pain-of-space (a zone of total unreason)” (McGuirk, “Rediscovery” 182). Characters from “Scanners Live in Vain”, and “Think Blue, Count Two” share suffering similar to the horse of Pontoppidan. Smith’s biographer, Alan C. Elms, notes these stories address “how…the protagonist [can] best deal with severe psychological pain” (274). Though the pain the protagonist in “Scanners” suffers is a side-effect of space travel, the symptoms of pain and loneliness are the same in each story. Elms notes that “people are saved from psychological pain…through the intervention of other living beings” (Ibid.). On Pontoppidan, humans and non-humans save each other from the psychological pain of isolation.

  4. The Spirit of St. Louis (1953), in describing the 22nd hour of the flight after ~55 hours of sleep deprivation:

    …While I’m staring at the instruments, during an unearthly age of time, both conscious and asleep, the fuselage behind me becomes filled with ghostly presences—vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane. I feel no surprise at their coming. There’s no suddenness to their appearance. Without turning my head, I see them as clearly as though in my normal field of vision. There’s no limit to my sight—my skull is one great eye, seeing everywhere at once.

    These phantoms speak with human voices—friendly, vapor-like shapes, without substance, able to vanish or appear at will, to pass in and out through the walls of the fuselage as though no walls were there. Now, many are crowded behind me. Now, only a few remain. First one and then another presses forward to my shoulder to speak above the engine’s noise, and then draws back among the group behind. At times, voices come out of the air itself, clear yet far away, traveling through distances that can’t be measured by the scale of human miles; familiar voices, conversing and advising on my flight, discussing problems of my navigation, reassuring me, giving me messages of importance unattainable in ordinary life.

    Apprehension spreads over time and space until their old meanings disappear. I’m not conscious of time’s direction. Figures of miles from New York and miles to Paris lose their interest. All sense of substance leaves. There’s no longer weight to my body, no longer hardness to the stick. The feeling of flesh is gone. I become independent of physical laws—of food, of shelter, of life. I’m almost one with these vapor-like forms behind me, less tangible than air, universal as aether. I’m still attached to life; they, not at all; but at any moment some thin band may snap and there’ll be no difference between us. The spirits have no rigid bodies, yet they remain human in outline form—emanations from the experience of ages, inhabitants of a universe closed to mortal men. I’m on the border line of life and a greater realm beyond, as though caught in the field of gravitation between two planets, acted on by forces I can’t control, forces too weak to be measured by any means at my command, yet representing powers incomparably stronger than I’ve ever known.

    I realize that values are changing both within and without my mind. For twenty-five years, it’s been surrounded by solid walls of bone, not perceiving the limitless expanse, the immortal existence that lies outside. Is this death? Am I crossing the bridge which one sees only in last, departing moments? Am I already beyond the point from which I can bring my vision back to earth and men? Death no longer seems the final end it used to be, but rather the entrance to a new and free existence which includes all space, all time. Am I now more man or spirit? Will I fly my airplane on to Europe and live in flesh as I have before, feeling hunger, pain, and cold, or am I about to join these ghostly forms, become a consciousness in space, all-seeing, all-knowing, unhampered by materialistic fetters of the world?

    At another time I’d be startled by these visions; but on this fantastic flight, I’m so far separated from the earthly life I know that I accept whatever circumstance may come. In fact, these emissaries from a spirit world are quite in keeping with the night and day. They’re neither intruders nor strangers. It’s more like a gathering of family and friends after years of separation, as though I’ve known all of them before in some past incarnation. They’re as different from men, and yet as similar, as the night’s cloud mountains were to the Rockies of the West. They belong with the towering thunderheads and moonlit corridors of sky. Did they board my plane, unseen, as I flew between the temple’s pillars? Have they ridden with me through sunrise, into day? What strange connection exists between us? If they’re so concerned with my welfare, why didn’t they introduce themselves before?

    I live in the past, the present, and the future, here and in different places, all at once. Around me are old associations, bygone friendships, voices from ancestrally distant times. Vistas open up before me as changing as those between the clouds I pass. I’m flying in a plane over the Atlantic Ocean; but I’m also living in years now far away.

  5. Lindbergh1953, the 23rd hour:

    …Sunlight flashes as I emerge from a cloud. My eyes are drawn to the north. My dreams are startled away. There, under my left wing, only five or six miles distant, a coastline parallels my course—purple, haze-covered hills; clumps of trees; rocky cliffs. Small, wooded islands guard the shore. But I’m in mid-Atlantic, nearly a thousand miles from land! Half-formed thoughts rush through my mind. Are the compasses completely wrong? Am I hopelessly lost? Is it the coast of Labrador or Greenland that I see? Have I been flying north instead of east? It’s like waking from a sound sleep in strange surroundings, in a room where you’ve never spent a night before. The wallpaper, the bed, the furniture, the light coming in the window, nothing is as you expected it to be. I shake my head and look again. There can be no doubt, now, that I’m awake. But the shore line is still there. Land in mid-Atlantic! Something has gone wrong! I couldn’t have been flying north, regardless of the inaccuracy of my compasses. The sun and the moon both rose on my left, and stars confirmed that my general direction was toward Europe. I know there’s no land out here in mid-ocean—nothing between Greenland and Iceland to the north, and the Azores to the south. But I look down at the chart for reassurance; for my mind is no longer certain of its knowledge. To find new islands marked on it would hardly be stranger than the flight itself.

    No, they must be mirages, fog islands sprung up along my route; here for an hour only to disappear, mushrooms of the sea. But so apparently real, so cruelly deceptive! Real clouds cover their higher hills, and pour down into their ravines. How can those bluffs and forests consist of nothing but fog? No islands of the earth could be more perfect. Did a wind of hurricane velocity blow me on toward Europe through the night? Have I been threading a tornado’s corridors? That may be the coast of Ireland I’m passing. It would take less than five minutes to fly over and make sure. It can’t be just fog-the pointed tops of spruce trees rise above the common mass; I can almost see their branches spreading out. How can it be all fog, when there are wisps of fog along the coast, when I can tell the difference between the fog and land? If it’s not Ireland, it must be the shore line of some Atlantis.

    I bank northward; then, before the Spirit of St. Louis turns ten degrees, I straighten out again. It’s nonsense, pure nonsense, to be lured off course by fog islands in the middle of an ocean flight. I’ll not allow myself such indulgence. I’ll waste no time and gasoline on fanciful excursions which can only end in disillusionment and additional fatigue. But if those islands aren’t real land, if they are not of earth’s substance, how can I distinguish land from air? How will I recognize Europe when I reach it? I see surf on the beaches and trees in the forests, yet my reason tells me that it all is fog!


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