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Cordwainer Smith's characters often have names that encode the numbers 5-6. In "The Dead Lady of Clown Town," this is taken to an extreme, with a robot called Fisi (English "five-six"), Lord Limaono (Hawaiian "lima-ono"), Englok (Cantonese "ng-luk"), Lady Goroke (Japanese "go-roku"), Lord Femtiosex (Swedish for "fifty-six"), and the dead lady herself Panc Ashash (Sanskrit "pancha-shat"). But there is also Veesey-koosey (Finnish viisi-kuusi) in "Think BLUE, Count TWO." Is there any known reason for his choice of these numbers? I've pondered over this for some years without coming on a convincing answer. Here is one false lead and a dubious one.

  • Hypothesis 1: They refer to his age, 56, at the time of writing the stories. False: He was born in 1913; "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" was published in 1964 and "Think Blue, Count Two" in 1963.

  • Hypothesis 2: They refer to the Quinisext ("5th–6th") Council held in Constantinople in 692 C.E., at which several religious matters were settled within Christianity. Dubious. Cordwainer Smith (a pseudonym for Paul Linebarger) was a devout Episcopalian at the time he wrote the stories, and there are many hidden references to Christianity in them. For instance, the "Instrumentality" that governs Earth matches a term used in Anglican theology. But the canons that were set down by the Quinisext Council (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quinisext_Council) don't seem relevant to "The Dead Lady of Clown Town," which Smith wrote explicitly as a retelling of Joan of Arc's story.

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    I wonder how tall he was...
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 15:39
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    Don't know the answer, but I stole the idea and used it in my lab back in the 90's. I had a bunch of NeXT computers used for data acquisition via their 56001 DSPs. So, I worked "56" into their names: Isoroku, Femtiosex, Elvis, ...
    – John Doty
    Commented Nov 18, 2022 at 15:11
  • The Sanskrit is even closer than that: the root of ‘6’ is ṣaṣ or ṣāṣ, though is not allowed at the end of a word (I'll have to get out a book to confirm that the substitute consonant is ). Commented Apr 30 at 9:24

2 Answers 2

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This answer is based on discussions I had with someone I met who had also known Paul Linebarger in the 1960s. (I believe that it has also been confirmed by his daughter, Rosana Hart, who maintains a Web site about Cordwainer Smith.) My acquaintance told me that the frequent presence of the "five-six" names was a reference to the year 1956, which the author considered the most important turning point in his life. Almost all his science fiction was written after this date, with only "War No. 81-Q" (1928), "Scanners Live in Vain" (1950), and "The Game of Rat and Dragon" (1955) having been published before that.

In 1956, Linebarger almost died. (I believe that it was a heart attack, like the one that actually killed him a decade later, although I am not sure that I am remembering that correctly.) He was quite ill for many weeks, and the critical illness was a profound experience for him. He attributed his recovery to God's providence, and afterwards, he became much more devout. He had always been practicing Episcopalian, although his upbringing had not been particularly religious; however, after 1956, he said grace at every meal and attended High Church Episcopalian services regularly, often singing in the choir. The repeated references to individuals named "five-six" were a kind of personal tribute to the year that he felt he had been saved and converted by God. It is probably not a coincidence that the "five-six" names show up most prominently in Smith's most explicitly religious story, "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" (1964).

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  • Looks like a winner to me. Thanks, Buzz. Commented Nov 19, 2022 at 0:16
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Web searches mostly turn up various copies and translations of the Wikipedia article. The WP article is useful because it clarifies the fact that 5-6 is not the only number he used, nor did he always use numbers. He also used 13 and 101 to construct names (13 multiple times), and some of his names are foreign words that aren't numbers, such as Jestocost. So this evidence makes it seem like there is probably not any overriding significance to 5-6, as if it were a Dan Brown key to unlock the hidden meaning of everything he wrote.

I don't have my copy of The Dead Lady of Clown Town to hand, but there is a 2008 article by Carol McGuirk, "Science Fiction's Renegade Becomings," that seems to shed at least some light on this. The article appeared in Science Fiction Studies Vol. 35, No. 2, On Animals and Science Fiction (Jul., 2008), pp. 281-307 (27 pages), but there is also a non-paywalled version here. She says:

The story opens with the conception of Elaine at An-fang (German word for beginning), a place near Meeya Meefla, as Miami, Florida, is called in Smith’s far-future. Due to a malfunctioning computer and the distraction of a young human overseer, a human child is genetically coded to become a “witch-woman” or, as the computer puts it, “lay therapist, female, intuitive capacity for correction of human physiology with local resources” (223). Most “witch-women” are sent to frontier worlds, but it will be this child’s fate to grow up on Fomalhaut III, a planet that requires little in the way of intuitive healing, since its uniformly prosperous people are seldom anxious, let alone sick. The same child is in error assigned an “animal” name, Elaine: human beings in this period are said to be identified by numbers.17 In a plot-twist reminiscent of Sturgeon’s sf, half-mad Elaine, a “mistake” of a person, will play an important part in breaking down rigid hierarchies and oppressive ways of thinking.

Footnote 17 says:

In “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” Lady Goroke’s name suggests the Japanese numbers for five-six (go and roku). Panc ashash suggests the Hindi words for five-six (paanch chah), and femtiosex—Lord Femtiosex is the harshest of D’joan’s judges—in Swedish means fifty-six. The name Veesey-Koosie in “Think Blue, Count Two” (1962), sounds like five-six in Finnish: viisi kuusi. While there are other examples, number-names are not invariable. Jestocost, as mentioned, comes from the Russian word for cruelty; and in “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” (1961), Menerima’s name (she becomes Virginia after the Rediscovery of Man), although said in the story to be a number, in Indonesian means “accept” or “swallow”—suggesting Virginia’s fatal indoctrination into reflexive contempt for underpeople. Perhaps Menerima is a number in some other language, however. Smith played with the meaning of words from many cultures.

So the text itself does seem to provide at least a partial answer to your question. There is an explicit thematic/metaphorical idea that numbers and computers are about oppression, which is posed as the opposite of freedom and animalism. The idea, then, would be that it's significant (and explicit) that the names are numbers, and this has a point in the story. However, the reader is not expected to know what numbers they are based on.

So we have more than one number that gets used, some numbers are repeated and some are not, and the story/metaphor logic says that it doesn't actually matter very much which numbers they are.

It may be that 5-6, 13, and 101 had some personal significiance, or they were in-jokes, but if so, it doesn't sound like we'll ever know unless someone who knew him comes forward to say so. Most likely he just wanted cool-sounding names that would help to give a sense of wonder to his universe, and he found that generating them in this way worked well for that purpose. This is, after all, an old problem that SF authors have struggled with, often with bad results. I still cringe when I remember all the extruded-fantasy and extruded-SF books by Andre Norton that my public library had when I was a kid. All the characters had names like Jark and Blem.

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    The "unlucky" number 13 has an obvious significance in "Think Blue, Count Two," the story of an ill-fated voyage. It's certainly possible that calling characters "5-6" was a passing fancy, but, given that Cordwainer Smith's stories tend to be laden with hidden meaning, including references to historical and legendary events, it's likely that he chose the numbers for a reason. His surviving papers are archived and it's possible that the key still exists. Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 18:48

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