Story by Cordwainer Smith
, and one of the most striking science-fictional comments on the youth movement
of the 1960's.
Perhaps it's worth explaining for the benefit of some of our readers that SF, for a genre that supposedly embraced the notion of alien cultures, strangeness, and wonder, was strangely nonplussed by the Baby Boom. On one hand, there was, for some, a blind kowtowing to the blissful, druggy, free-loving "spirit of the new era" which verges on the embarrassing, especially after thirty or so years of knowing it wasn't the verge of an era of peace, love, and guilt-free joy after all. On the other, was an equally blind and unreasoning fear.
Hippies and their ilk were considered little more than the barbarians at the gates, who threatened the very foundations of the safe, clean, affluent, and modern society that their parents had tried so valiantly through the hardscrabble Thirties through the Second World and Cold Wars to uphold. "Clockwork Orange" set the tone: teenagers were not Citizens of Tomorrow, but feral predators who nightly went out on missions to massacre upright taxpaying elders, free of anything resembling conscience or respect for the womenfolk. Worse, they tended to like folk music by blacklisted artists, such as Pete Seeger and other old Reds, decried American inequalities and even opposed the Arms Race and the Vietnam War. When it was discovered (on this side of the pond) that these thugs had developed their own music, independent of the smooth, polished, crooning, and blandly agreeable instrumentals of their parents, SF writers went ballistic in their efforts to outdo each other in depictions of raucous non-music listened to by spasmodically jerking subhumans intent on nothing short of the destruction of Civilization As We Know It.
In this light, Smith/PMAL's response seems oddly reasonable, strangely enlightened, and possibly the closest picture we have of his considerable skill at HUMINT at work.
The plot of the story is simple: Sto Odin, a dying Lord of the Instrumentality (the shadow government of the series), having but a few months left to live, decides to go into the Gebiet, a disused complex of shafts and underground passageways, to investigate a cure for the "weary happiness" of a Mankind that has grown stagnant and complacent. Weak and sick, he outfits himself with a sedan chair carried by two superhuman robots dressed as Roman centurions, each imprinted with the best minds (a top secret agent and a psychologist/military strategist, respectively, both of which the real PMAL was) he can find, and a manikin meee, a small, computerized figurine that shows medical problems in its owner, similar to the ivory figures used by Chinese doctors. He affixes to his clothing a feather, to signify that his death or capture will be overlooked by the authorities (assuming that they can, since he is, himself, quite good at self-defense).
Entering the Gebiet, he learns that a suicidal young man has stolen some of the "congohelium" (a notoriously unstable substance consisting of matter and anti-matter in close laminate) and has used it to make music, loud, pounding, rhythmic music, that can be heard through walls of solid stone. Maddened by music, by drugs, and by his overwhelming boredom, he's set himself up as Akhnaten, renaming himself Sun-Boy, a god who can, by himself, set "new cultural patterns in motion". On the trip down, we're treated to scraps of the songs this new pattern has engendered, the lyrics of which are uniformly excellent, much appreciated by the Colonel...er, Lord, and always seditious, while the Lord fusses with his manikin, asks to have his metabolism stepped up, and confers with his bearers as they proceed into the Bezirk, "a place where laws have never been".
At last, he comes to the room where Sun-boy is hiding: a large, cavernous space lit by many colored lights that looks, for all the world, like a rave. Except that everyone's asleep; dead tired, there are small heaps of people everywhere, worn out by dancing, lights, drugs, and the ceaseless beat of the congohelium. Only Sun-boy himself, powered by the ball of pure energy in his hands, remains awake, ceaselessly dancing, singing, and playing drums, making music drawn from all the cultures and faiths that humanity had forgotten, the Christians, the Buddhists, the sad songs of Islam and the happy ones of Africa, all together and by themselves. Only he, and his girlfriend, who has remained faithful by the door remain awake; although she admits she sleeps, eats, and dresses elsewhere, she always returns to him, to watch him dance.
I won't spoil the ending, but it seems to me that both the good Colonel's considerable powers of observation and his cultural objectivity are serving him very, very well here. The description of the rave (actually it would have been a discotheque, in his day) is spectacularly on the money. He's not at all shocked that these people are on drugs: to him, drugs are what people take when they're idle and allowed to -- vice, he grumbles, is nearly always the same set of dull gestures, and, moreover, he's taken them himself, now and then. (Maybe it's because he's a spy, and not a cop?) The young people capering and dancing under the lights, with their bare young bodies and flamboyant adornments, are fun to watch. And as for the music -- he's saying, in effect, the rest of the world likes music that's percussive, religious, passionate and loud...it's we who are the anomaly. Their lyrics are as good as poetry. He'd gladly end his days in such a place, as the Lord Sto Odin does, his last dying vision a wavering image of Sun-boy's dancing.
But for the leftist ideology of their leaders, and their attempts to overthrow the government, he's afraid that professionally, and personally, he might have to kill them. Damn.