Alpha Ralpha Boulevard

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"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard"
AuthorCordwainer Smith
Country USA
SeriesInstrumentality of Mankind
Genre(s)Science fiction
Published inThe Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
Publication typePrint (Magazine, Hardback & Paperback)
PublisherMercury Press
Publication dateJune 1961
Preceded by"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons"
Followed by"A Planet Named Shayol"

"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" is a science fiction story by American writer 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.

Ursula K. Le Guin said that " 'Alpha Ralpha Boulevard' (...) was as important to me as reading Pasternak for the first time."[2]

"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" was inspired in part by a painting from Smith's 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]:107[4] The name of the story is likely derived from that of Ralph Alpher, who himself was convinced of the connection.[5][6]

The ancient computer in the story is called the Abba-dingo, which some Smith scholars have speculated may mean "Father of Lies";[3][7][8] others have noted similarities to "the French phrase 'l’abbé dingo', or 'mad priest'".[9]It is also evocative of Abednego, who, along with Shadrach and Mesach, survived the Biblical “fiery furnace” in Daniel 3.

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 time). 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 from animals such as dogs, cats, and bulls to provide manual labor. Paul is accosted by a provocative dog-girl, then by a drunken bull-man, who attacks them. A 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 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, in which Paul also makes a cameo appearance.


  1. ^ Smith, Cordwainer (1993). Mann, James A. (ed.). The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith (First ed.). Framingham, Mass., USA: NESFA Press. ISBN 978-0915368563. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  2. ^ MacCaffery, Larry and Gregory, Sinda, Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s, p. 177, University of Illinois Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0252060113
  3. ^ a b Hellekson, Karen L. (September 2001). The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina, USA: McFarland. p. 107. ISBN 978-0786411498.
  4. ^ Elms, Alan C., Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology, p. 26, University of Oxford Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0195082876
  5. ^ Elms, "Building Alpha Ralpha Boulevard":
    • "Linebarger, in addition to his long-established interest in astronomy, was privy to a good deal of academic gossip, and he greatly enjoyed wordplay. It seems likely that he not only read about Alpher’s discovery in the Washington Post but heard about—if he didn’t actually read—the Physical Review paper that equated Alpher’s name with the letter 'Alpha'. ["Alpher, Bethe, Gamow, sounding roughly like the beginning of the Greek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma."] Looking up Alpher’s name in a university directory or in the local telephone book, he would have found it listed as 'Alpher, Ralph A.'"
    [Adams's note 7] "Alpher’s own judgment was: 'It would be difficult to accept the notion that the title is pure coincidence. Linebarger must have constructed it from my name' (personal communication, 23 May 1984). Alpher notes that when he was younger, some friends nicknamed him 'Alpher Ralpher,' others called him 'Alphalpher,' and still others simply 'Ralpher'—though he does not suggest that Linebarger had any way of knowing these nicknames."
  6. ^ Rosana Hart, Smith's daughter and the webmaster of the official website, personal communication, July 20, 2015: "Knowing my father, he never missed a chance to make a pun on names, but I don't know if this one was."
  7. ^ Lewis, Anthony R. (September 2000). "A". Concordance to Cordwainer Smith : A (Third, revised, 2000 ed.). Framingham, Massachusetts, USA: NESFA Press. ISBN 1-886778-25-6. Archived from the original on 2013-01-09. Retrieved 21 July 2015. Abba (Aramaic) father + dingo (Australian slang) to betray = father of lies? less possible: from Abed-nego = worshipper of nebo (lofty place) CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  8. ^ Smith, Cordwainer (1975). Pierce, J.J. (ed.). The Best of Cordwainer Smith. Ballantine. p. 283. ISBN 978-0345245816. bastardized Semitic-cum-Aussie slang for ‘Father of Lies’ [editor's analysis] CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link) Cited in Hellekson, p.107.
  9. ^ Elms, "Building Alpha Ralpha Boulevard": "Given the Abba-dingo’s unpredictability and its godlike status among the Underpeople, I suspect that Smith derived the name instead from the French phrase 'l’abbé dingo,' or 'mad priest.' A quasi-omniscient character in another of Linebarger’s favorite French novels, Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo (1844-45), is nicknamed 'the mad priest', though Dumas used a less colloquial phrase with the same meaning, 'l’abbé fou'."

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