Scanners Live in Vain

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"Scanners Live in Vain"
Fantasy book 1950 n6.jpg
cover illustration by Jack Gaughan
AuthorCordwainer Smith
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Science fiction
Published inFantasy Book volume 1 number 6
Publication typePeriodical
Media typePrint
Publication dateJanuary 1950

"Scanners Live in Vain" is a science fiction short story by American writer Cordwainer Smith (pen name of American writer Paul Linebarger), set in his Instrumentality of Mankind future history. It was originally published in the magazine Fantasy Book in 1950. It was judged by the Science Fiction Writers of America to be one of the finest short stories prior to 1965 and was included in the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964. A revised text, based on Linebarger's original manuscript, appears in the 1993 NESFA Press collection The Rediscovery of Man (where it is accompanied by a facsimile of his original cover letter) and the 2007 collection When the People Fell. The story was nominated for a Retro-Hugo award in 2001. It has been published in Hebrew, Italian, French, German and Dutch translations.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

The story is set circa A.D. 6000. Humanity has colonized planets around other stars, but interstellar travel is constrained by the mysterious "First Effect", which causes the "Great Pain of Space" and induces a death wish in humans. Passengers on interstellar voyages are stored in cold sleep, while the crew of the spaceship is composed of Habermans: convicts and other riff-raff who have undergone an operation in which the brain is severed from all sensory input except that from the eyes. This blocks the Pain of Space but puts them somewhere between human and machine, with zombie-like behavior and disturbed psyches, dependent on constant monitoring and adjustment of their vital functions via implanted dials and regulatory instruments.

The Habermans are supervised in space by Scanners, who undergo the operation voluntarily; they are permitted, unlike the Habermans, to monitor themselves and are respected by themselves and others as essential to keeping the space lanes open and uniting the Earths of Mankind. The Scanners live a horribly lonely and difficult life, punctuated by brief intervals of cranching—use of a device that temporarily restores normal neural connectivity. They compensate by maintaining a fanatically elitist confraternity, with secret rituals and body language, absolute loyalty, and a demand for autonomy maintained by the threat that "No ships go" if any Scanner is wronged. No Scanner has ever killed another Scanner.

The protagonist of the story is Scanner Martel, set apart by his marriage to a normal woman. At the start of the story he has cranched and is trying to relax at home, but is ordered to an emergency meeting of the confraternity (such a major emergency that it even over-rides the protocol permitting a cranched member to decline to attend). The leader of the Scanners, Vomact (a member of the vom Acht or Vomact family which plays a prominent role through much of Smith's Instrumentality future history), informs the meeting that one Adam Stone is about to make public a method to prevent the Pain of Space in normal people, thereby rendering Scanners obsolete. The Scanners vote to kill Stone, and only Martel in his cranched state and his friend Chang (the only Scanner who, via long practice, can appear "normal" when not cranched) can grasp the moral and practical wrongness of this decision. When they are the only two dissenters to the murder vote, Martel tries to reach Stone before the appointed assassin and warn him. In order to enter the city where Stone lives without revealing himself to be a Scanner, Martel breaks off his specially formed fingernail, used by scanners to communicate by writing on a board attached to their chests, and symbolic of the status of being a scanner.

Martel succeeds in warning Stone, who reveals that he has also developed a new surgery that will return Scanners to normal. At this point the assassin arrives, who turns out to be Martel's other best friend, Parizianski. In a high-speed battle, Martel ends up killing Parizianski before lapsing into unconsciousness from the pain of operating in high-speed while cranched. When he awakens, he finds that he is the first Scanner that Stone has restored to normality; the Instrumentality plans to appoint all of them to be spaceship pilots, allowing them to maintain their guild, and they have agreed, albeit some reluctantly. At the very end, Martel learns from his unsuspecting wife that people have been told that Parizianski died because he was so happy upon learning the truth from Stone that he forgot to self-monitor.


This was Linebarger's first published science-fiction story as an adult (his short story "War No. 81-Q", which he wrote at age 15, was published in his high school magazine), and the first appearance of the Cordwainer Smith pen name. It was written in 1945, and had been rejected by a number of magazines before its acceptance and publication in Fantasy Book in 1950. It was in that obscure magazine that it was noticed by science fiction writer Frederik Pohl who, impressed with the story's powerful imagery and style, subsequently re-published it in 1952 in the more widely read anthology Beyond the End of Time.


Pohl said that "Scanners Live in Vain" "is perhaps the chief reason why Fantasy Book is remembered". [2] Robert Silverberg called it "one of the classic stories of science fiction" and noted its "sheer originality of concept" and its "deceptive and eerie simplicity of narrative".[3] John J. Pierce, in his introduction to the anthology The Best of Cordwainer Smith, commented on the strong sense of religion it shares with Smith's other works, likening the Code of the Scanners to the Saying of the Law in H. G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau.[4]

Graham Sleight lauded Smith's depiction of Martel's cranched perspective, calling it "a story about absence", but faulted his portrayal of Martel's wife Luci, whom he describes as "just a plot device".[5]

Science fiction scholar Alan C. Elms has suggested that the story reflects Smith's own deep psychological pain, symbolized by the "Great Pain of Space" (which is described in terms reminiscent of depression) and the isolation of the Scanners. The outcome of the story can by this interpretation be seen as indicative of his acceptance of help.[6]


  1. ^ ISFDB bibliography
  2. ^ Pohl, Frederik (December 1966). "Cordwainer Smith". Editorial. Galaxy Science Fiction. p. 6.
  3. ^ Silverberg, Robert. Science Fiction 101: Robert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder. ibooks, New York, 2001.
  4. ^ The Best of Cordwainer Smith, ed. John J. Pierce, Ballantine Books, New York, 1975.
  5. ^ Yesterday's Tomorrows: Cordwainer Smith, reviewed by Graham Sleight, in Locus, April 2007; archived online October 18 2007; retrieved December 19, 2017
  6. ^ Alan C. Elms, "The Creation of Cordwainer Smith", Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Nov., 1984), pp. 264-283.

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