Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith

First publishedin Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1955.

Another one available as a free download from Project Gutenberg! It’s listed under the pseudonymous Smith’s real name, Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger.

This is a story about, of all things, an office romance. Well, okay, not the office; in fact the battle room of an interstellar spaceship. Underhill is a telepath who uses his powers to detect what he calls ‘Dragons’, creatures that dwell in outer reaches of interstellar space. The object of his affections is his Partner Lady May, who works with him to detonate the ultra-vivid miniature photonuclear bombs in the creatures’ vicinity, as only intense bright light can damage them.

Theirs, however, is an impossible love. For Lady May is a Persian cat.

This isn’t a war story, and Underhill and Lady May aren’t soldiers. The ships they protect are trading and colony ships, the creatures that attack are somewhat of a natural hazard rather than an aggressive interstellar civilization. There’s none of the apocalyptic feel of a war story and that makes this feel more mundane than a war-time romance.

Underhill has a neurotic edge. When we first meet him he’s concerned about his status:
Pinlighting was a hell of a way to earn a living. Underhill was furious as he closed the door behind himself. It didn’t make much sense to wear a uniform and look like a soldier if people didn’t appreciate what you did.

He sat down in the chair, laid his head back in the headrest and pulled the helmet down over his forehead.

As he waited for the set to warm up, he remembered the girl in the outer corridor. She had looked at it, then looked at him scornfully.

‘Meow.’ That was all she had said. Yet it had cut him like a knife.
He’s like a Philip K Dick character, rather than a ruthless Vancian hero or one of Heinlein’s competent men. This enhances the story’s mundane quality, despite the exotic nature of the work that Underhill and Lady May do.

Smith also has a nice ear for terminology that brings the setting alive: pin-sets and pinlighting, the method of planoforming by which the space ships travel and the terminology of Partners, Rats and Dragons. He also gives us a striking depiction of Underhill’s telepathic experience of the universe when he dons the pin-set.
He felt the squares of space around him, sensed himself in the middle of an immense grid, a cubic grid, full og nothing. Out in that nothingness, he could sense the hollow aching horror of space itself and could feel the terrible anxiety which his mind encountered whenever it met the faintest trace of inert dust.

As he relaxed, the comforting solidity of the Sun, the clockwork of the familiar planets rang in on him. Our own solar system was as charming and as simple as an ancient cuckoo clock filled with familiar ticking and reassuring noises.
All this careful handiwork let’s us concentrate on the matter at hand in the story: Underhill’s confused feelings for his feline partner. In fact, it’s clear early on that he’s got form in this regard. Each pinlighter draws the name of Partner out of a bag at the start of every flight, but Underhill’s colleagues tease him about a past incident of cheating at the draw.
Underhill felt his ears grow red with embarrassment. During his novitiate, he had tried to cheat in the lottery because he got particularly fond of a special Partner, a lovely young mother named Murr. It was so much easier to operate with Murr and she was so affectionate toward him that he forgot pinlighting was hard work and that he was not instructed to have a good time with his Partner.
And now he’s infatuated with another colleague:
When he had first come into contact with her mind, he was astonished at its clarity. With her, remember her kittenhood. He remembered every mating experience she had ever had. He saw in a half-recognizable gallery all the other pinlighters with whom she had been paired for the fight. And he saw himself radiant, cheerful and desirable.

He even thought he caught the edge of a longing -

A very flattering and yearning thought: What a pity he is not a cat.
Ah, yes, haven’t we all deluded ourselves about a pretty face at work? A difficult project, late nights and hands that brush across tottering stacks of documents, and then the weeks or months of pain and confusion. What’s to be done? Well, Smith doesn’t offer any answers. In the end, Underhill’s love is unrequited and his pain undimmed.

It all adds up to a truly great SF story. The set up is somewhat bizarre but ultimately plausible enough. The idea of working in telepathic link with animals certainly fits within the circle of acceptable 50s SF ideas; even today, something like We3 by Grant Morrison isn’t that far away from a similar idea, or that Charles Stross story with colony of AI lobsters.

And on top of this, he adds a sensitive and finely judged portrayal of an almost universal phenomenon, the office crush. This makes the story so much more than just another neat idea. It has an edge of humanity and compassion that provides the vital dimension that lifts this story to another level.

Thems: space as a workplace, office romance, doomed love.


  1. Thank you very much for this - what a great story!

  2. Isn't it a beauty? This book has thrown up a few little gems, but this is probably the shiniest so far. It's great to know that classic SF stories can still pack a little clout.


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