Story Cycles of Future History: Cordwainer Smith's 'Instrumentality of Mankind'

By Seed, David | Yearbook of English Studies, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

Story Cycles of Future History: Cordwainer Smith's 'Instrumentality of Mankind'


Seed, David, Yearbook of English Studies


Abstract

This article discusses how Cordwainer Smith (i.e. Paul Linebarger) constructs a cycle of stories dealing with the future history of humanity. Rejecting the method of internal realism, he uses a more symbolic method of narration through a series of central metaphors. Smith establishes a grand narrative which commences with a period of catastrophic wars followed by the establishment of a ruling autocracy out of which humanity must struggle to regain lost freedoms. This sequence, known as the Instrumentality of Mankind, acts as a broad template within which Smith can locate the chronology of his stories. Typically these stories narrate phases of cultural recovery where historical outcomes are obscured though repeated acts of liberation occur. The complexity of Smith's narratives contrasts polemically with the certainty of the Communist utopian ideal which Smith interpreted as a plan for world conquest.

Modern story sequences are frequently unified by place, whether Winesburg Ohio (Sherwood Anderson) or San Francisco (Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City). In science fiction, by contrast, we find sequences set in a variety of locations but held together by a scheme of future history. These sequences represent a specific narrative expression of a defining characteristic of the genre itself. Robert H. Canary, for example, has argued that science fiction 'presents a fictive history set outside our agreed upon historical reality but claiming to be consistent with our experience of that reality, to operate by more or less the same rules'.[1] Following such leads, some of the most fruitful recent science fiction criticism has explored its complex relation to history.[2]

The rediscovery of story cycles as a narrative form in American Science Fiction appears to date from the Second World War. Isaac Asimov began his famous Foundation series against the backdrop of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. His editor John W. Campbell insisted that the subject was too large for a single work and told him: 'It will have to be an open-ended series of stories.'[3] Asimov took as his model Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and subsequently explained: 'I used history as a guideline to keep me from using ridiculous misinterpretations of what can happen, given people and their way of behaving.'[4]

As well as helping to establish conventions of the sub-genre such as part-screening the names of prototypes (Bel Riose for Belisarius, Dorwin for Darwin, and so on), Asimov punctuates his Foundation stories with quotations from the fictional Encyclopaedia Galactica, which relates each specific narrative to a pool of historical information. There thus emerges a gap between historical enactment within the stories and the process of codification implied in the existence of the encyclopaedia, a gap partly addressed by Asimov in 'The Psychohistorians', a piece written to introduce the series. Here Asimov's protagonist Hari Seldon is charged with treason for prophesying the downfall of the Empire in a dramatization of the institutional resistance to historical extrapolation. Although such a series is based on the premise of historical change, Charles Elkins has argued persuasively that Asimov's belief in an essentialist human nature contradicts his method. Because 'the plot and characters are forced to conform to a predetermined template', the whole series is therefore 'invested with a pervading fatalism'.[5]

The most famous case of a serial narrative of future history was that of Robert Heinlein whose 'Timeline' chart has passed into science fiction mythology. Published in 1941, the same year as Asimov's first Foundation story, the chart was modelled on similar tables in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) and was later revised to include more and more of Heinlein's stories.[6] In effect the chart assembles these stories into a composite narrative from the 1940s well into the next century. …

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