Science Fiction Studies

# 12 = Volume 4, Part 2 = July 1977

Gary K. Wolfe

Mythic Structures in Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon"

Discussions of the relationship between science fiction and myth usually begin to break down as soon as the question of basic definitions arises. There is little critical agreement as to the meaning of either term, and trying to establish some defensible relationship between two such slippery concepts begins very quickly to seem like an attempt to draw maps of clouds. But this should not be taken to mean, as it often is, that myth study has little to offer the study of science fiction or vice versa. In this paper, I will attempt to apply a specific methodology drawn from the study of myths conducted by Claude Levi-Strauss to a specific work that is generally received as science fiction, Cordwainer Smith's story "The Game of Rat and Dragon." The confluence of this particular method with this particular work arises partly out of the peculiarities of each, and should not be taken as an argument that all science fiction should be treated as myth, or that Levi-Strauss's methodology is the only proper approach to science fiction as myth.                

But there is a compelling reason why the anthropological approach to myth may be of benefit to science fiction. We often encounter the claim that science fiction is a "modern mythology," but this is seldom accompanied by a discussion of what models are used for "mythology" or just what is meant by modern. Is science fiction modern only because it happens to be a contemporary popular genre, and is it myth only because it often deals with the heroic and the marvelous? As much could be said of fantasy or James Bond stories or Westerns. What of the relationship—explored by several critics—of science fiction to such universal systems of narrative interpretation as those of Northrop Frye or Joseph Campbell? Again we can accept the claim, but only with the awareness that it applies to most other kinds of narrative as well. It is not difficult to forge literary connections between science fiction and accepted bodies of myth, but such connections do little to elucidate the claim that science fiction can actually function as myth in our modern culture, in the same way that myths historically express the beliefs and aspirations of a people. In this broader context, myth is never mere escapism, nor is it the mere shell of surface narrative. And to look at science fiction in this context, we must look beyond the shape of narratives that simply appear to be mythic—such as heroic fantasies—into the real cultural content of such narratives, to the underlying beliefs and paradoxes. "in mythic imagination," Ernst Cassirer writes, "there is always implied an act of belief,"1 and the discovery of the ways in which this belief has been codified and its paradoxes resolved through myth has been one of the major goals of such analysts as Levi-Strauss and Edmund Leach. In such analyses, focus is shifted from the narrowly literary aspects of the narrative to the functions of the myth within the culture that produced it. Certain recurrent actions associated with specific beliefs are discovered, and a link is forged not only to other myths, but to the social and intellectual life of the culture itself.   

Whether or not such analysis can work with science fiction depends upon the extent to which we are ready to accept the notion that science fiction does indeed function as a way of ordering and expressing the myths of our culture, our common problems and beliefs. The question becomes even more problematical when we consider that science fiction is a literary genre with a rather specialized audience rather than a common body of folklore. However, there is mounting evidence that the mainstream of science fiction of the forties and fifties—perhaps because of its isolation from external literary influences, its vigorous internal cross-pollenation, and the force of that peculiar institution known as "fandom"—did indeed evolve into an almost tribal body of icons, themes, and beliefs. Both Donald Wollheim and James Gunn have commented on the "consensus future history" that science fiction developed during this period, and Wollheim goes so far as to cast out from the mainstream of science fiction any work that does not fit into his eight-stage "cosmogony."2 Furthermore, it seems to be a habit among science-fiction writers to construct their own future histories—Blish, Heinlein, Stapledon, Simak, Dickson, are but a few examples besides Smith—and these future histories tend to be considerably more internally consistent than the "consensus," making it possible if not in fact preferable to look at a single work by one of these authors in the context of the author's own system.                

Perhaps more than any other writer of future-history stories, Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger) manages to impart to his tales the aspect of "strong time" of which Mircea Eliade speaks in describing the power of myth—"the prodigious, 'sacred' time when something new, strong, and significant was manifested."3 Smith's stories, in the words of Franz Rottensteiner, constitute "an outlook, a world-view, colored and distorted as if transmitted by oral tradition."4 Smith's narrators speak to an implied audience of an unimaginably distant future, to whom the fantastic inventions of the tales—the Up-and-Out, Scanners, habermen, pinlighters, go-captains, underpeople —are but as myths of an ancient and more powerful time.                

The internal consistency of Smith's tales of the Instrumentality of Mankind has to some extent been established by J.J. Pierce in his introduction to the Ballantine collection The Best of Cordwainer Smith.5 Because of this consistency, and because of the ways in which these stories partake of the icons and structures of the aforementioned "consensus" of mainstream science fiction, Smith's work seems an inviting area for the kind of structural mythic analysis which, if successful, can reveal some of the hidden beliefs and paradoxes that science fiction addresses. Specifically, there are three related themes in Smith that I think are central to much modern science fiction. First and most important is the antinomy of known and unknown and the means by which science fiction tends to validate the appropriation of the unknown and its assimilation into the known—the process of transforming Chaos into Cosmos, in Eliade's terms.6 Second is the theme of beast or monster in science fiction, and the ways in which this image in its various manifestations relates to man's unconscious mind, his animal nature, and his terrestrial origins. The third theme is that of technology, and the apparent paradox in much science fiction that the more man tries to deny his autochthonous origins through technology, the more he is reminded of them.                

All three themes are evident in the short and widely anthologized story "The Game of Rat and Dragon." While this story on one level is a highly imaginative treatment of conventional themes of romance and heroism, it is also a revealing treatment of science fiction as a codification, perhaps "mythification," of contemporary beliefs and concerns. There are four principal sets of actors in the tale: "pinlighters," or telepathic humans; "partners," or intelligent cats used to assist the pinlighters in their dangerous duties; "dragons" or "rats," primeval interstellar beings that destroy or drive mad humans in space; and the ordinary humans whom the pinlighters and their cats serve to protect from the dragons. Each set of actors plays a particular symbolic role in the antinomy of known-unknown. The known is represented by the ordinary humans and their planetary environments—the "'same old ticking world,'" says the pinlighter protagonist Underhill. "'Down here with the hot sun around us, it feels so good and quiet. You can feel everything spinning and turning. It's nice and sharp and compact. It's sort of like sitting around home.'" The unknown is clearly the realm of the dragons, which Smith describes in images of elemental chaos: "entities something like the dragons of ancient human lore, beasts more clever than beasts, demons more tangible than demons, hungry vortices of aliveness and hate compounded by unknown means out of the thin, tenuous matter between the stars." When telepaths try to read the minds of those damaged by dragons, they find only "vivid spouting columns of fiery terror bursting from the primordial id itself, the volcanic source of life."                

Acting as a barrier between the known and the unknown are the two remaining sets of actors, the pinlighters and their cats. Although the pinlighters use advanced technology to fight dragons, their further dependence on cats from the bestial threat of the dragons suggests a more positive model of man's relationship to the animal world: his ability to work in concert with it. But this collaboration produces curious emotional attachments that are closer in many ways than the relationships pinlighters have with other humans. "'I've seen more pinlighters go crazy from monkeying around with Partners than I have ever seen caught by the Rats,'" Underhill is warned. Thus the pinlighters are regarded with a mixture of scorn and worship by other humans; when Underhill reads the mind of a nurse in a hospital where he is recuperating from a bout with the dragons, he sees himself visualized as a "radiant hero...very far away...better and more beautiful than people like her." Almost in the same instant, the nurse whirls on him and shouts, "'You pinlighters! You and your damn cats!'" The romantic hero becomes both an animal and a god.                

Apart from the obvious heroic elements, how does such a story constitute a myth? In what is probably his best-known essay, "The Structural Study of Myth," Claude Levi-Strauss offers a clue. According to his analysis of the story of Oedipus, the diachronic elements of the various versions of the myth, when placed in a proper synchronic relationship, serve to resolve a fundamental paradox in the belief system of the culture that produced the myth. He organizes the "mythemes," or constituent narrative units of the tale, into four columns labeled according to what he regards as basic antinomies of the culture of Greece at that time: overrating of blood relations, underrating of blood relations, denial of the autochthonous origin of man, and persistence of the autochthonous origin of man. "It follows,"he writes, "that column four is to column three as column one is to column two," or "the overrating of blood relations is to the underrating of blood relations as the attempt to escape autochthony is to the impossibility to succeed in it."7 Social reality (blood relations) serves to validate cosmological belief (autochthonous origins) by an identity of structure, even though nominally the two contradict each other in regard to the origin of man (bisexual reproduction vs. the belief that man is born of the earth).                

Like the story of Oedipus, "The Game of Rat and Dragon" deals essentially with the acquisition of power through the defeat of a monster and the reassertion of man's autochthonous origins in spite of that power. The specific cultural problem that underlies Smith's story, and that in fact characterizes a great deal of science fiction, may be stated in two parts: first, as man tries through technology to incorporate the unknown into the known, he continually finds the unknown receding before him and remaining essentially intact but in a changing context; and second, the more man tries to overcome his autochthonous origins through the appropriation of space and power, the more he is confronted with the persistence of these origins in the form of monsters and his own vulnerability in the universe. In Lewis Mumford's words, "the utmost achievements of technology, which are symbolized even today by a journey to distant planets, terminate in fantasies of shapeless monsters and cruel deaths, such as often haunt the cribs of little children."8               

Although "The Game of Rat and Dragon" is not a folk myth like Oedipus, we may regard it, as Smith's narrator does, as a myth of the Instrumentality of Mankind and, by extension, as part of the "consensus cosmogony" of which Gunn and Wollheim speak. Arranging the elements of the underlying narrative (as opposed to the surface story of Underhill and Lady May) into four columns as defined by the known-unknown antinomy and the attempt to overcome autochthonous origins, we come up with the following:


Appropriation of                                                                                                           Denial of                                                            Persistence of
unknown through                               Persistence of                                                      autochthonous                                                     autochthonous
technology                                            unknown                                                           origins                                                                 origins

achievement of                                                                                                                interstellar                                                          "pain-of-space"
space travel                                                                                                                     commerce
                                                       passengers not
                                                       conscious during
                                                       interstellar "leaps"

                                                       dragons                                                                                                                                              dragons release id,
                                                       encountered                                                                                                                                        causing madness
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  and death            

                                                                                                                                      use of "super-                                                        hospitalization of
                                                                                                                                      human" power of                                                   telepaths after each
                                                                                                                                      telepathy to detect                                                 encounter                                                      
shields and bombs                dragons learn to                                                                                                                                      cats needed to aid
used against                                    evade shields                                                                                                                                          pinlighters
dragons; pinlighting
                                                                                                                                       pinlighters                                                               pinlighters
                                                                                                                                       regarded as cultural                                                 regarded as bestial

Read from left to right, the chart follows the chronology of the story of how pinlighting developed; read vertically, it reveals synchronous groupings that relate to the principal antinomies described by the column headings. Column one, for example, contains the purely technological achievements of space flight, weaponry, and pinlighting or telepathic amplification. All are examples of how technology aids man in assimilating the unknown into his dominion. The second column shows how the unknown persists in spite of these achievements: the space traversed in interstellar travel remains unknown to the passengers because of the nature of planoforming, a mode of travel necessitated by relativity; space keeps its secrets even as man conquers it. And even this limited conquest of space brings forth new avatars of the unknown: the dragons. Technology produces weapons with which to fight the dragons, but they respond by learning to evade them on low trajectories. The game, at its fundamental level, is a contest between technology and the unknown, and it is a contest that cannot be resolved within the context of this antinomy alone. Cats are needed to aid the pinlighters, and while the cats help to resolve this first opposition, they also bring into focus the second opposition, which is represented by columns three and four.      

Column three shows the ways in which man tries to liberate himself from his origins as an earthbound animal, first by physically moving outward from his home planet and undertaking commerce with the stars, later by insulating himself from the primordial dragons that are associated with his own unconscious. Telepathy itself may be regarded—as it is in much science fiction—as an evolutionary step away from man's biological origins toward a condition of pure mind. As column four shows, however, this "release" from the animal world is offset by a new link between man and animal; just as the unknown persists, so do man's links with his origins. Cats are telepathic, too, and their faster reaction time is a reminder that man remains close enough to the animal world to require its assistance in the most advanced technological undertakings (a theme echoed in "Scanners Live in Vain" by the use of oysters to protect passengers from the "pain-of-space"). The "pain-of-space" itself (the phrase is borrowed from other Smith stories, though the experience is alluded to in "Rat and Dragon") and human vulnerability to the dragons are further evidences of man's physical and psychological vulnerability and alienation in space. The last two elements of the story, revealed in the hospital scene, are the conflicting attitudes held toward pinlighters, the one worshipful of their heroic aspect, the other contemptuous of their strange relationship with cats. The former attitude sees pinlighters as symbols of man's liberation from his origins, the latter as symbols of continued dependency on those origins. The cats share this dual symbolic aspect: the tom who has proven most effective against the dragons is also the one whose mind is most full of "slobbering thoughts of food, veritable oceans of half-spoiled fish."      

In fact, each of the two major science-fiction concepts in this story—space travel and telepathy—is presented in the dual aspect of the technological and the organic. The technical achievement of planoforming is balanced by the living threat of the dragons, and the technical achievement of pinlighting is balanced by the need for instinctual, sensuous cats. This pattern of binary opposition is evident in much of Smith's work—it provides the major source of conflict in "Scanners Live in Vain," for example—and in a broader context may underlie much of science fiction's iconography. To choose an example of just one such icon, many science fiction monsters are organic in nature yet created by technology run wild (as in atomic mutation stories) or encountered as the result of a technological achievement (as in space or time-travel stories, or, if we are willing to accept the notion of alien technological achievement under this rubric, invasion-of-earth stories).      

In "The Game of Rat and Dragon," this opposition manifests itself in a kind of quadratic relationship which we can express following Levi-Strauss's formula for Oedipus: the use of technology to appropriate the unknown is to the persistence of the unknown as the denial of autochthonous origins is to the persistence of those origins. (The second part of this, of course, is lifted whole cloth from Levi-Strauss on Oedipus, and not surprisingly, since both are variants on the monster story). Technological appropriation of the unknown becomes analogous to man's deeper motivation to escape his animal-terrestrial heritage, and the persistence of the unknown despite technology becomes analogous to the ways in which this heritage constantly reasserts itself. The analogy broadens the context of the original antinomies and leads to a still more fundamental paradox: man can never achieve the final step of technology—complete mastery of the unknown—without ceasing to be human. The problem is not new—it amounts to a space-age reworking of the old "divine animal" paradox—but it may well be one of the fundamental paradoxes of modern science fiction.      

It is tempting to speculate on the many ways science-fiction writers have attempted to deal with this paradox. One method, for example, consists of constructing a kind of cyclical cosmology. Works such as Clarke's Childhood's End, which deliberately try to push the appropriation of the unknown to its utmost limits, often end as creation myths; the achievement of total technology is in fact accompanied by final liberation of man from his autochthonous origins, and man ceases to be human, entering, in Clarke's sense, "Overmind." The final sentence of Blish's Cities in Flight, in which man appropriates the entire universe only to find it on a collision course with a universe of anti-matter, is "Creation began." In such works the identification of total technology with liberation from origins is made literally apparent, and the rhetoric of such works is often the rhetoric of Genesis.      

Smith offers no such clever dramatic solutions, although the "religious climax" that JJ Pierce says he had planned for the Instrumentality stories may well have been in that vein. But even within the structure of the story "The Game of Rat and Dragon," there is evidence of an accounting for this relationship of the unknown to man's autochthony, an accounting that may hold some truths about the broader myths of mainstream science fiction. It is, simply, that the unknown achieves an identity with man's origins through the common medium of the unconscious, "the volcanic source of life" in Smith's term. Technology is the expression of consciousness and deliberation, and what man has not appropriated through technology is equated with the unborn chaos of his own unconscious, as in the "waste land" of earlier hero myths. Eliade's fundamental mythic antinomy of Chaos and Cosmos thus underlies both our earlier oppositions, and the only synthesis suggested is that of mind:

             technology                                                                                         persistence
    (appropriation of unknown)                                                                        of unknown
                  │                                                                                                        │
                                                                                                                denial of persistence of
      autochthonous origins                                                                       autochthonous origins
                  │                                                                                                        │

In this light, we can begin to defend the notion that science fiction works as myth in its cultural function as well as in its surface content: it becomes a way of ordering the universe without violating the integrity of that universe, of offering man a way of expanding his technology indefinitely without reaching the dead end that such appropriation of knowledge inevitably suggests; there will always be the unknown within man himself. "The Game of Rat and Dragon," which deals with the science-fiction archetypes of monsters and transformed humans, offers one evidence of this sort of function, but such analysis might also be of value in exploring the power of such other archetypes as cities, robots, and spaceships. Certainly it may be useful in exploring the work of so deliberate a maker of myths as Cordwainer Smith. There are many myths like those of Smith in science fiction, however, and in most of them, we will find an antinomy of known and unknown, with an accompanying underlying structure of chaos versus cosmos. This, more than any simple historical formula or diachronic pattern, represents the true cosmology of science fiction.


1. An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture (1944; US 1954 294p), p 101.
2. Gunn, Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction (US 1975 256p), pp 225-26; cf. his essay "Science Fiction and the Mainstream" in Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow, ed. Reginald Bretnor (US 1974 ix+342), p 190. Wollheim's formulation appears in The Universe Makers (US 1971 vi+122), pp 42-44, and his eight-stage "cosmogony" is as follows: interplanetary travel, interstellar travel, rise of galactic empire, full galactic empire, decline and fall, interregnum, rise of permanent galactic civilization, and challenge to God.
3. Myth and Reality, translated by Willard R. Trask (1963; US 1968 212p), p 19.
4. The Science Fiction Book (US-UK 1975 160p), p 150.
5. (Ballantine pb, 1975), pp xi-xix.
6. Myth and Reality (see Note 3), p 141.
7. "The Structural Study of Myth," in Structural Anthropology, translated by Claire Jacobsen and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (US 1963 410p), pp 213-16.
8. The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power (US 1970 496p), pp 48-49.

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