The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" by Cordwainer Smith: An Appreciation by Alan Deniro

"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" is one of the greatest science fiction horror stories of all time. It might not be readily apparent that this story is horror; other stories by Cordwainer Smith such as "A Planet Named Shayol" may play up this element more on the surface. But this is a story that seemingly does the impossible--have a sprightly, almost jovial tone; and at the same time incorporate a creeping and creepy sense of inevitability about its protagonist.

That protagonist is quite the villain. Benjamin Bozart was "sworn to rob Old North Australia [Norstrilia] or to die in the attempt, and he had no intention of dying." From Viola Siderea, a planet of thieves, he was the best of their thieves, kept alive for centuries to rob Norstrilia blind. They have gained their wealth through the refinement of "stroon." A dollop can add decades to life; Norstrilia deals in stroon by the ton. Needless to say, Norstrilia has developed unreal defenses in order to protect its investment and its people.

The story has a masterful approach to voice and pacing. Fairly early in the story, when Bozart's plans start to fall apart, it's readily apparent to the reader (though not to Bozart) how the story is going to turn out. The thief, surely, is going to die in an unpleasant way. Cordwainer Smith has given away the "secret" as such. But how, then, does Smith keep the narrative crackling, edgy, fun, and terrifying all at once?

For one, we just don't know how horrible Bozart's untimely end is going to be. He is the greatest thief on a planet of thieves, but this means nothing. He is going to fail. There is no disputing this. The devil is in the details--we know the mouse is confidently striding to his doom, but are surprised to see that the cheese is actually in the middle of a bear trap.

Secondly, it comes down to his style, which solders together these disparate elements. In the first section of the story one comes across this sentence: "One of her weapons snored. She turned it over." Again, the devil is in the details--Cordwainer Smith poses odd juxtapositions of the senses, and our sense of what technology does and how it feels to its users is depicted in an almost dreamlike fashion.

All of this would have been masterful if its sole purpose was to provide effect, to show the machinations of a kind of wind-up-toy story. But there is more. Smith is always searching for more with his stories. What the reader is left with is a sense of the Norstrilian people's own connectiveness and openness with each other; not in any political or military sense--for in that realm they cannot be assailed--but rather in their inner lives. They are both powerful and tender toward each other. But, to anyone who would threaten that--or murder a Norstrilian child, as Bozart did to attain information--they unleash the fearsome kittons, unleashing a psychic onslaught from decidedly non-cuddly "kittens" in the name of safety. The epigraph states: "Poor communications deter theft; good communications promote theft; perfect communications stop theft. --Van Braam." This is a sharp encapsulation of the issues at stake in this story, and yet also reveals the koan-like nature of the story's resolution. What constitutes "perfect communications" in the first place? Who controls these communications? There are certainly no easy answers to these questions, but with the Norstrilian's power comes a strange innocence that is both hard to understand and dislike. It's Mother Hitton, the "weapon mistress," who takes danger upon herself and allows Norstrilian lives to go on peacefully.

The story reads as fresh and timely as I imagine it did in 1961, when it first appeared in Galaxy. Issues of national (OK, galactic) security, data theft, small tragedies, and some really nasty minks all add up into an intoxicating concoction. It has remained the only story of Cordwainer Smith's available online. I couldn't think of a better gateway drug to the wild, incantatory worlds of Cordwainer Smith and the Instrumentality than this gem of a story.

Link to story.


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