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Literature / Scanners Live in Vain

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"Scanners Live in Vain" is a Novelette written by Cordwainer Smith in 1945. After being rejected by Astounding Science Fiction and other major magazines it finally appeared in 1950 in the more obscure Fantasy Book magazine as Smith's first professional publication. It went on to be included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One and in Robert Silverberg's Science-Fiction 101.

In The 'Verse where this story takes place, mankind tried exploring space, but ran into a huge problem: Some unknown form of radiation permeated all of outer space, which would cause unbearable pain in anyone exposed to it for more than a few minutes. There was no known way to block this radiation. The only solution anyone could devise for this "Great Pain of Space" was to physically sever all the nerves that carried the pain signals to the brain. This procedure, invented by Dr. Haberman, rendered the patient incapable of feeling any sensation, good or bad, and of using any senses other than eyesight; so it was reserved for convicted criminals who would otherwise be sentenced to death.

Unfortunately, manning your starships entirely with convicted felons isn't the best way to run a space program, so these "Habermans" as they came to be known had to be watched closely by a volunteer police force who'd had the nerve-severing procedure done to them voluntarily. These volunteers (like the the other Habermans) had readouts and control panels mounted into their bodies, so that they could monitor their physical health and make sure they weren't (say) leaning against a running buzz saw without realizing it. They were trained to scan their readouts quickly and often, and so became known as Scanners.

One additional perk that Scanners had was the ability to temporarily bypass their severed nerves, and thereby experience hearing/smell/taste/touch like a normal person again, by plugging in a special wire invented by Eustance Cranch. The hero of the story, a Scanner named Martel, gets "cranched" to enjoy a little sensory vacation from the space service, but is called to an emergency meeting by the Scanners Confraternity while his cranch is still in effect. There, he learns that an Adam Stone has invented a way to eliminate the Pain of Space in normal people who don't have the Haberman cuts. The rest of the Scanners, who are in their normal unfeeling state of sensory deprivation, see this as a challenge to their "labor monopoly" and vote to have Adam Stone assassinated. Martel's cranched state, on the other hand, allows him to feel how morally wrong this is, and he decides to put a stop to it.

Conflict, confrontation, and artificially-induced high-speed battle reflexes ensue.

Post-1992 texts are taken from the original manuscript, restoring chapterization and some text that was cut from the original magazine publication.

This novelette provides examples of:

  • Artistic License – Biology: As pain is transmitted exclusively via the spinothalamic tracts and trigeminal nerves, it really shouldn't be necessary to sever other neural pathways that carry hearing, scent, taste, proprioception, or tactile sensations to render someone immune to the Great Pain. Not to mention how severing the vestibulocochlear nerves would rob the subject, not only of hearing, but of the sense of equilibrium, without which they'd suffer incapacitating vertigo and clumsiness: something that automatically disqualifies people from space flight in real life.
  • Blessed with Suck: The Scanners and Habermans are responsible for man's expansion into space. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of their senses.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: Losing their senses led to a loss of empathy and morality in scanners, letting them coldly consider murder as a viable answer.
  • Cyborg: The Scanners and Habermans.
  • Disability Superpower: Severing the sensory nerves makes you immune to the Great Pain.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: A large part of the reason the Scanners vote to kill Adam Stone is that, in their Haberman state, they are incapable of realizing the outrage this will provoke among normal humans. Martel, who is still cranched at the time, recognizes that this could turn humanity against the Scanners.
  • Human Popsicle: Colonists who don't have the Haberman cuts are shipped to other planets in cold sleep, aboard starships crewed by Habermans and Scanners.
  • Humanity Ensues: With his discovery having removed the need for Scanners, Stone works out how to undo the Haberman process, turning the Scanners back into humans. The regular Habermans, who were convicted criminals in the first place, are simply allowed to finally die.
  • Karma Houdini: Martel kills fellow scanner Parizianski to keep him from murdering Dr. Stone. The others assume Parizianski's death was an accident, and it's implied that Martel's knowledge of what he really did will haunt him afterward.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: When the scanners hear that Adam Stone may have discovered a cure to pain of space, they vote to kill him so as to not render their jobs obsolete.
  • Organic Technology: Adam Stone has basically discovered that the radiation that causes the Great Pain of Space not only affects life, it is absorbed by it. So, surrounding yourself with other living creatures will prevent you from feeling the pain yourself. He eventually settles on building a shield out of live oysters, since they lack any central nervous system to experience pain with.
  • Professor Guinea Pig: Once Stone was certain of his cure, he himself rode a ship that utilized it, and emerged unharmed.
  • Sense Loss Sadness: Martel laments being dead to his senses when working.
  • Space Madness: The Great Pain of Space can drive a man to suicide, if he doesn't have the Haberman cuts to prevent him from feeling it.
  • Title Drop: Thrice in the story. The title refers Adam Stone's possible cure for the pain of space, which would render the entire caste of scanners to be useless.
  • Token Good Teammate: Chang, another scanner and friend of Martel's, who is skilled enough to act normal even while in scanning mode and is the only other scanner to vote against Stone's assassination.
  • Treachery Cover Up: After Martel saves Adam Stone from the Scanner assassin, Stone comes up with a cover story (out of gratitude to Martel) that leaves the Scanners with the respect and esteem they had earned with years of service and sacrifice instead of disgracing them as a pack of would-be assassins that tried to kill him to maintain their monopoly and the power that came with it
  • Uncanny Valley: In-Universe. Because scanners do not feel, they either lip-read or yell their speech, walk awkwardly, and cannot form convincing expressions. Martel doesn't notice how strange and repulsing this is until he observes them while cranched.