I cannot place the name nor author of this short story I know I've read sometime over the past decade.

The narrator is exiled on a planet, basically a prison planet. It is barren and has a single overseer who is kind of a dumb homunculus. Many people on the planet become mutilated. Some are in groups, some bury themselves in the ground, and many no longer have normal intelligent faculties. I think there was a female character whom the narrator emotionally attaches himself to. There are particles that fly through the planet and have some kind of effect on the exiled inhabitants. People grow extra limbs which the overseer cuts off.

The end of the story is a climax around, I think, infant exiles who have some kind of a royal connection. I think the overseer is killed? I remember the tone like it could have been written by Harlan Ellison or Larry Niven, but I'm unsure if it was from either of them.

Thank you all for any insights!

2 Answers 2


This is "A Planet Named Shayol" by Cordwainer Smith. (It's my father's all-time favorite science fiction story.) "Cordwainer Smith" was the pen name of the diplomat, professor, and psychological warfare expert Paul Linebarger. The name "Shayol" is an alternative transliteration of the Biblical Hebrew Sheol, (שְׁאוֹל) which refers a place of punishments for villainous dead.

The plot summary, per Wikipedia:

The protagonist, Mercer, who lives within the Empire, has been convicted of "a crime that has no name". He is condemned by the Empire to the planet Shayol, in which he lives in a penal colony whose inhabitants must undergo grotesque physical mutations caused by tiny symbiotes called dromozoans. Most grow extra organs, which the Empire harvests for medical purposes. The bull-man B'dikkat administers the prisoners a drug called super-condamine to alleviate the pain of their punishment and from their surgeries.

More than a century pass. Mercer has found a lover, named Lady Da. B'dikkat shows the couple a sight that horrifies him. Children have been sent to Shayol, alive, though with their brains removed. Lady Da knows how to contact the Lords of the Instrumentality, in order to intervene. The Lords arrive on Shayol. They are shocked by what they find. The children are the heirs to the throne. Apparently, the Imperium has become so bureaucratic and corrupt that it condemned them to prevent them committing treason when they matured.

The Instrumentality voids their permission to allow the Empire to exist and to maintain Shayol. They will free the still sentient prisoners and to cure their suffering with a substitute for the super-condamine, namely an electronic "cap" which actives the pleasure center. The mindless prisoners are decapitated, leaving their bodies to be handled by the dromozoa while their heads are destroyed. Lady Da claims Mercer as her consort.

The underperson (B'dikkat the bull-man) is depicted (along with many other characters) with his tank of super-condamine on the cover of The Best of Cordwainer Smith. Besides this anthology, it has appeared in quite a number of books, (including in translation, which is fitting since Linebarger was a skilled linguist) and it is available online.

The Best of Cordwainer Smith


  • 3
    And you can read the story on Gutenberg Aug 18, 2021 at 1:50
  • 2
    ‘Shayol’ being, I assume, a transliteration of שְׁאוֹל, also transliterated as ‘Sheol’. Aug 18, 2021 at 11:18
  • If I remember correctly, it was also published in the 1961 issue of a yearly short story anthology Asimov oversaw. Other stories in the publication included "Hothouse," and "The Moon Moth." Unfortunately I don't remember the name of the publication at the moment. @fivesdedice: I never noticed the play on the Jewish word for "grave"/"hell" before. That's amazing.
    – Benjamin
    Aug 18, 2021 at 15:29
  • @Fivesideddice Thanks, I meant to mention that in my answer and forgot.
    – Buzz
    Aug 18, 2021 at 18:16
  • This is absolutely it!!!! You're the best, I now remember I read it in the collection "The Rediscovery of Man," a complete collection of Cordwainer Smith's short stories a few years ago. This was for sure my favorite story in the collection. Aug 22, 2021 at 15:22

This story also has some strong similarities to Orson Scott Card's A Planet Called Treason, later revised and rereleased simply as Treason.

The premise of this novel is the banishment to the seemingly metal-poor planet Treason of a group of people who attempted to create rule by an intellectual elite. The novel centers on the descendants of these anti-democratic thinkers who remain imprisoned on the planet. Through the ages, these descendants have formed nations which warred and allied with one another to gain advantages over their rivals in the race to build a starship. Due to the metal-deficiency on Treason, nations are forced to obtain it through a system of barter using teleportation devices known as Ambassadors.

The protagonist of the book is Lanik Mueller, heir apparent to the Mueller family kingdom. The Muellers, through generations of eugenics, have the ability to heal at an accelerated speed and regrow body parts naturally. The dark side to the Mueller nation is that, in order to obtain iron and other metals, they trade organs and body parts, which are harvested from radical regeneratives ("rads"). Radical regeneratives are people whose bodies can't distinguish between health and injury, and so grow extra appendages as well as organs of the opposite sex; although this is a normal phase for most Muellers at the age of puberty, the bodies of radical regeneratives never outgrow it.

The Muellers regenerate freely, although they remove their own limbs and organs (largely of the radicals) to trade with the Ambassadors. The Schwartz people, descended from geologists, have gained a form of geokinesis which involves sinking into the rock, and Lanik learns that trick, eventually using it to destroy the Ambassadors in an attempt to create peace by removing the source of conflict between the tribes.

However, to my knowledge, there are no strange particles flying through the air, and there really isn't much of a plotline involving discovery of royalty in exile, although Lanik himself is such, and his clone brother (resulting from an attempt he made to kill himself where his body got confused and regrew an entire other person from the parts he chopped off) now sits on the Mueller throne, and one of the reveals is that the Illuders, descendents of a psychologist, have been using the power of illusion to replace leaders in the other tribes.

  • The similarities (including the title) make me wonder whether Card was specifically inspired by Smith's earlier story and wrote A Planet Called Treason partially as an homage. I could find no evidence of Card having indicated that though.
    – Buzz
    Aug 19, 2021 at 4:48
  • 2
    @Buzz that is a very interesting question. On the one hand, the similarities are remarkable. On the other hand, Card is a very original writer and has not, afaik, written 'variation on a theme' types of books. On his website Q&A he has several answers about reading which influenced his writing; this is not mentioned. He also was asked about favorite authors/books and chose to list books that were important to him before he began his writing career -- it is also not listed there.
    – Basya
    Aug 19, 2021 at 8:58

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