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The key detail from the story was that because of cosmic rays or some other deadly phenomenon, pilots of spacecraft returning to earth had to be dead people who had been specially reanimated. Living pilots would be killed by the re-entry process. Most of the pilots had been condemned criminals, but the protagonist had volunteered to do it for his own reasons. Space pilots were definitely considered second-class citizens because of their potentially criminal past.

The space pilots had very little sensation (necessary to traverse the deadly space fields), but the protagonist had access to a device that allowed him to sense and feel emotions. The device was called something like an "[Eponymous] Wire", named after its inventor. It allowed the protagonist to spend time with his wife, and not be the semi-automaton he was while in pilot mode.

A plot point was that there was an uprising on the home planet, and the space pilots were perhaps threatening disruptive action. There's a tense moment between two senior members of the ruling class, and one of them prevails because it turns out that the prevailing ruler was also formerly a dead space pilot.

I suspect it's Golden Age because, while the story was more about how society reacted to the technology than earlier "Look at this shiny thing!" stories, I remember the language of space travel seeming very quaint. It might even have used a term like "helmsman" for the reanimated pilots.

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  • I wonder if the, A plot point was that there was an uprising on the home planet, and the space pilots were perhaps threatening disruptive action. There's a tense moment between two senior members of the ruling class, and one of them prevails because "it turns out that the prevailing ruler was also formerly a dead space pilot," part of this summary might be something from a different story, that has become mingled in your mind with "Scanners Live in Vain."
    – Buzz
    May 19 at 0:59
  • Re-reading the story, it was definitely Scanners Live in Vain, and I must've imagined the spoiler
    – scruss
    May 19 at 1:44
  • A trick spoiler. Nice. May 19 at 18:32
  • Non-intentional, I assure you. I'll remove it
    – scruss
    May 20 at 0:46
  • It's usually not a good idea to edit story identification questions to match the answer. For one thing, it can make elements of answers unclear.
    – Buzz
    May 20 at 0:54

1 Answer 1

45

This must be Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith. From the wikipedia summary:

Conscious humans cannot travel through space because of an effect called the "Great Pain of Space", which eventually causes death, so space travel is possible only in artificial hibernation. Ships are crewed by "habermans", convicted criminals who have undergone a surgical procedure to sever almost all sensory nerves, rendering them unable to hear, smell or feel, although they can still see. A haberman monitors and controls his bodily functions via a box of electronic instruments implanted in his chest, and communicates by writing on a tablet. In space, habermans are supervised by Scanners, people who have voluntarily undergone the same surgery. Unlike habermans, Scanners are widely honored for their self-sacrifice which makes space travel possible.

The "wire" referred to in the question is the "cranching wire", which temporarily allows a haberman (close to the "helmsman" recalled by the OP) or a Scanner to feel true sensation again, but for a strictly limited time.

In Scanners tension arises when a scientist devises a way for humans to cope with "The Great Pain" without involving this drastic surgery, making space travel available to all. As this will make the Scanners redundant, they devise a plan to assassinate him. This is rather different to the plot recalled in the question, making it quite possible that the OP has mingled the plot of Scanners with another story.

The full text of Scanners is available at Project Gutenberg.

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  • 2
    It just occurred to me to wonder if Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah..." started with him thinking about Smith's story and the idea of radical modifications to allow humans to work in space.
    – user888379
    May 18 at 23:05
  • Your first link leads to "Disqualified" by Charles L. Fontenay. May 19 at 21:18
  • 1
    @ChristofferHammarström Thanks for letting me know May 19 at 22:29

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