The Rediscovery of Man

March 26, 2014
Cordwainer Smith

Cordwainer Smith (AKA Paul Myron Linebarger) was weird, and so was his writing. He was a university professor, he worked for the CIA, he engineered the mass surrender of thousands of Korean troops during the Korea War, he wrote the definitive work on psychological warfare, and - as it were - he wrote a large collection of science fiction stories. He was possibly severely mentally ill.

His writing is probably the most lyrical, for lack of a better term, of golden age SF writers. I still can't read the ending of The Ballad of Lost C'Mell or A Planet Named Shayol without a tear in my eye.

Dark, pessimistic and bitterly romantic, the universe his characters lived in was a bizarre kind of anti-Utopia: Not a true dystopia as much as an attempt at a utopia maintained through extremely authoritarian, oppressive and nasty means. It features robots controlled by laminated animal brains, genetically modified animal "underpeople" subservient to a dehumanized class of "true men", telepaths, cyborgs, cat-piloted space fighters, living human organ farms, weaponized pleasure.

Most of his contemporaries (1940s-1960s) wrote about brave square-jawed American heroes going to Mars, shooting bug-eyed monsters and racial stereotypes with ray-guns, and saving damsels in distress.

When he originally published most of his stories, he did so in the pulp mags common for the time - sometimes with only subtle references to show that all his stories took place in a single, vast, interconnected universe. You see, nearly all his science fiction was set in a single universe with a timeline that stretches from somewhen just after the Second World War (No, No, Not Rogov!) to tens of thousands of years in the future (Three to a Given Star). This collection contains all the stories in that particular universe except for Norstrilia, the only SF novel he wrote.

The stories are dated. Many of the premises are scientifically absurd. The Chinese successfully colonize Venus by paradropping millions of unprotected people onto its surface. Space travel causes "the Pain of Space", requiring a corps of cyborgs ("habermans") that have had their capacity to feel disconnected. Because of the unique prose style, the stories read more like a kind of space-age fables than like typical sf - without devolving into outright "space fantasy". There are some annoyingly sexist attitudes on display in some stories (although many also feature sympathetic and competent female POV characters), although it is unclear whether or not this is simply because Smith was writing from the perspective of a man in the 1950s, or if it's because his fictional society is intentionally written as a sexist society.

There isn't much in the way of "SPACESHIP SHOOT LASER; BOOM!" that was so common in the time period. Rather, most of the conflicts are centered around human (and animal) psychology.

I liked most of the stories, and none were bad, per se - even though some of them showed their age. Recommended, if you enjoy the weird.

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