Cordwainer Smith’s “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”

Cordwainer Smith, the pseudonym of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, was an influential SF short story writer in the 1950s and 60s. “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is a story from his “Instrumentality” universe and was first published in 1961. Smith is probably best well known for his story, “Scanners Live in Vain” from 1950.

“Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is set in a far future that combines H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Shape of Things to Come (and accompanying film, Things to Come) with what I would describe as proto-cyberpunk elements such as re-engineering the body and mapping new memories and experiences onto the human mind. It’s about a couple recreated as French citizens after the safeties of existence are released to allow accident and disease to modulate the population levels of the “real humans.” In the second paragraph, Smith writes, “Everywhere, things became exciting. Everywhere, men and women worked with a wild will to build a more imperfect world.” The world is populated by homunculi (engineered human-animal hybrids who serve as workers), hominids (humans engineered for enduring the strain of space travel), and real persons (numbered people engineered and maintained by the Instrumentality).

The main characters, Paul and Virginia are considered “real persons.” They run afoul of a bull homunculi, but are saved by C’mell, a cat woman who figures in some of the other Instrumentality stories.

There are some interesting images built into the story that relate to the Great Chain of Being (more info here and here). The humuculi occupy the lower levels of the city, the real persons live and play in the middle levels, and the Instrumentality occupies the upper levels in Earthport. Paul and Virginia are troubled when they learn that the cat-woman, C’mell works in Spaceport, because her kind are regarded as lower and therefore not privileged like real people. In fact, C’mell, when asked her name by Paul, replies, “Does it matter?…I’m not a person.” C’mell’s action to save Paul and Virginia, and later Paul at the Abba-dingo, further reinforces the problematizing nature of culturally understood and maintained hierarchies.

I recommend this story wholeheartedly. I read it in The Norton Book of Science Fiction, but you can also find it in Cordwainer Smith’s complete short fiction collection, The Rediscovery of Man.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

Posted in Review, Science Fiction
2 comments on “Cordwainer Smith’s “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”
  1. […] Comments: Themes: Tourists, far future, choice, individuality, history, identity, authenticity, the past as a foreign country, death, control/chaos, culture/subculture, genetic engineering.  See Le Guin’s comments on the story on Wikipedia.  Read in The Norton Anthology of Science Fiction.  A review at A Trout in the Milk: “Madness as Allegory: Cordwainer Smith’s ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” which views the story as an allegory for architecture.  The review discusses the story in context of modernism/post-modernism–humanity under the perfect order of the Instrumentality has become a too efficient, god-like “form”; thus, the Instrumentality creates a post-modern pastiche in order to restore a human-scale sense of meaning.  The world has become “new” by making it “old.”  Also see the review at Dynamic Subspace. […]

  2. kai says:

    Cordwainer Smith estuvo mucho tiempo en China,ahijado de Sunt Yat Sen

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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