Alpha Ralpha Boulevard

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"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard"
Author Cordwainer Smith
Country  USA
Language English
Series Instrumentality of Mankind
Genre(s) Science fiction short story
Published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
Publication type Print (Magazine, Hardback & Paperback)
Publisher Mercury Press
Publication date June 1961
Preceded by "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons"
Followed by "A Planet Named Shayol"

"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" is a science fiction story by Cordwainer Smith, set in his Instrumentality of Mankind universe, concerning the opening days of a sudden radical shift from a controlling, benevolent, but sterile society, to one with individuality, danger and excitement. The story has been reprinted a number of times, including in The Rediscovery of Man[1] collection.

In an interview, Ursula K. Le Guin said about it:

To me encountering his works was like a door opening. There is one story of his called "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" that was as important to me as reading Pasternak for the first time. [2]

The story is one of many set in a far future of mankind, with a wealth of history and social detail which remain hinted at or unwritten. Like J. R. R. Tolkien, Smith worked on this universe over years, and other stories were planned at the time of his death. The reader often has an uneasy sense that actual events underlie aspects of Smith's writing. Alpha Ralpha Boulevard was inspired in part by a painting from his childhood The Storm by Pierre-Auguste Cot, of two young lovers fleeing along a darkening path. Additionally, the names of the two principal characters, together with the conscious attempt to revive a French culture, recall the 18th century French novel Paul et Virginie. According to his widow and second wife, it was also partly about his first wife's attraction to another man.[3][4]

Plot summary[edit]

The all-powerful Instrumentality government, which in its overprotectiveness has driven the purpose from human existence, decides to turn back the clock to a less sheltered historical human era of 14,000 years before. (i.e., our era.) Virginia and Paul are enjoying the first moments of the recreations of the old human language, French, reading their first newspapers, and going to their first cafe, where the bugs in process are not resolved to the point of understanding how to use money.

With the restoration of cultural differences and new individuality, old friends Paul and Virginia fall in love. Not everything from the Instrumentality era has vanished, especially the underpeople, a subclass of people bred with animals such as dogs, cats, and bulls to provide manual labor. Paul is accosted by a provocative dog-girl, then by a drunk bull-man, who attacks them. Another cat-girl, C'mell, rescues them from physical danger. She directs them to a cafe where Virginia begins to have qualms about the artificial aspects of the personality she's been given, and wonders whether her love for Paul is real or synthesized. She then meets another man she also finds attractive, Macht (a member of the Vomacht family prominent in Cordwainer Smith's future history). Macht tells her of a computer, the Abba-Dingo, never understood by the Instrumentality, which has reached the status of a God, able to foretell the future. It can only be reached walking a ruined processional highway leading into the clouds: Alpha Ralpha Boulevard.

The three of them set off along, and up, the highway. Paul becomes worried when he realizes that the highway has no machines to supply food, water or medical help in case of accidents. Macht accidentally activates a moving walkway which carries him up the Boulevard rapidly; Paul and Virginia decide to follow. It transpires that the Boulevard has a large broken section, several kilometers above the ground, spanned only by hanging cables many meters below. Paul and Virginia are thrown off of the broken end of the moving walkway. Virginia's momentum carries her over the gap. Paul collides with the end of the roadway on the far side and has to hang on for dear life while Virginia pulls him up. They discover that Macht is crawling along a cable far below, but realize there is nothing they can do to help him. They continue upward until they finally reach the Abba-Dingo, which seems to be an ancient computer system. It has a machine marked "Food", but they are disappointed to find that this no longer works. A machine marked "Meteorological" displays a sign which reads "Typhoon coming". A machine marked "Predictions" is surrounded by mysterious white objects which Paul slowly realizes are the bones of long-dead humans. Virginia puts her hand in a slot marked "Put paper here", which cuts words into her skin: "You will love Paul all your life." After bandaging her hand with a strip torn from his clothing, Paul inserts a strip into the slot. The machine prints "You will love Virginia twenty-one more minutes". Paul "accidentally" loses the strip to the wind and pretends his prediction was the same as hers.

The two set off back down as the typhoon begins lashing the Boulevard with wind and rain. By the time they arrive back at the gap twenty-one minutes later the storm is in full force and they are in danger of being blown off the road or struck by lightning. Macht is nowhere to be seen, having presumably fallen. C'mell reappears and tries to help Virginia, but Virginia recoils from being touched by an underperson and falls to her death. C'mell knocks Paul unconscious so that he will keep still while she carries him across the precarious cables.

Paul awakens at home to find himself being attended by a medical robot. Before C'mell returns to check on him, Paul ponders the nature of the machine that could make such accurate predictions, and grieves for his loss.

C'mell reappears as the title character in "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell", and plays a major role in the novel Norstrilia.


  1. ^ Mann, James A. (ed.), The Rediscovery of Man, NESFA Press, 1993.
  2. ^ MacCaffery, Larry and Gregory, Sinda, Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s, p. 177, University of Illinois Press, 1987.
  3. ^ Hellekson, Karen, The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, p. 107, McFarland & Company, 2001.
  4. ^ Elms, Alan C., Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology, p. 26, University of Oxford Press, 1994.

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