Monday, February 13, 2006


Cordwainer Smith

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I tend to be something of a late adopter, when it comes to writers. I didn't read any Fritz Lieber until I was in my early twenties, didn't read any Philip K. Dick until I was 28, and didn't read any Alfred Bester until I was 33. And every time I "discover" one of these writers that everyone has been telling me for years to read, my reaction is a forehead-slapping, "How long has this been going on?" kind of moment.

Well, I've just added another to the list. I picked up Cordwainer Smith's The Rediscovery of Man and Norstrilia last month, additions to my space opera reading list. On Friday, having just finished Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon (which I thought was a gas), and with a little time to kill, I picked up the former of the two books and started to read.

The top of my head blew off, and has been buffeted on a pillar of astonished steam ever since.

Christ, how long has this been going on?! I've known Cordwainer Smith's name since I was a teenager, at least, though I probably associated it primarily with Harlan Ellison's "Cordwainer Bird" pseudonym (Harlan's own personal "Alan Smithee"). And until Friday, I'd never read a word of his fiction. But a few weeks back, a friend recommended I might check him out, after hearing me describe the future world of my space opera project. I looked Smith up on Wikipedia, and was surprised to discover that Smith's "Instrumentality of Mankind" and the world of the "Human Entelechy," the setting for the far future portion of my space opera, shared more than a little in common. I located copies of the NESFA editions of both books, which between then contain all of Smith's science fiction short stories and his one sf novel. And now I can't do anything else with my time until I finish reading this stuff. I'm halfway through the short story collection, and eagerly anticipating getting to dip into Norstrilia, Smith's only full length novel.

(As an illustration of how much this stuff is messing me up, the Olympics are always a really big deal around our household. I'm not much for sport, but the kind of faster-farther-higher tests of pure ability and skill that make up much of the Olympic competitions really ring my bell. So it's been with a heavy heart that I've bowed out of all but a few hours of Winter Olympic viewing the last few days, disappearing into my office after Georgia toddles off to bed, to read for a few hours until I can't keep my eyes open any longer.)

I'm continually staggered by the level of invention in Smith's future world. The stories themselves often lack strong endings, but the ideas scattered along the way are decades ahead of their time. Consider this, a bit of text from the opening sections of "The Burning of the Brain," published in 1955.

The Stop-captain waited for him. Outside on the world of Sherman the scented breezes of that pleasant planet blew in through the open windows of the ship.

Wu-Feinstein, finest ship of its class, had no need for metal walls. It was built to resemble an ancient, prehistoric estate named Mount Vernon, and when it sailed between the stars it was encased in its own rigid and self-renewing field of force.

The passengers went through a few pleasant hours of strolling on the grass, enjoying the spacious rooms, chatting beneath a marvelous simulacrum of an atmosphere-filled sky.

Only in the planoforming room did the Go-captain know what happened. The Go-captain, his pinlighters sitting beside him, took the ship from one compression to another, leaping hotly and frantically through space, sometimes one light-year, sometimes a hundred light-years, jump, jump, jump, jump until the ship, the light touches of the captains mind guiding it, passed the perils of millions upon millions of worlds, came out at its appointed destination and settled as lightly as one feather resting upon others, settled into an embroidered and decorated countryside where the passengers could move as easily away from their journey as if they had done nothing more than to pass an afternoon in a pleasant old house by the side of a river.

(Text ganked from here, as I'm too lazy to retype it) There's a level of invention in Smith's stories that's not matched even by a lot of today's SF, much less Smith's contemporaries in the fifties and early sixties. And as his future world uses terminology and fabricated science of Smith's own invention, it hasn't dated considerably, either.

If you haven't read any of Cordwainer Smith's stories yourself, I highly recommend him. I can't imagine what sf readers of the fifties thought he was up to, but I think modern readers will find a lot to admire in his work.

I'm totally with you on this. I bought the NESFA story collection on a whim and was blown away by what I've read from it (which is not the whole thing). You've inspired me to go back and finish it!

Coincidentally, Walter Jon Williams recently posted a blog entry about Cordwainer Smith here.

One of the interesting things I've read about Paul Linebarger (aka Cordwainer Smith) is that he was a college classmate of L. Ron Hubbard. Linebarger had lived a fascinating life by that time, and Hubbard later borrowed the details of Linebarger's life for his own biography. (At one point Linebarger also wrote a book called Ethical Dianetics in response to Hubbard's work.)
Look at it this way, Chris--you're not a late adopter, you're someone who, as an adult, can have that invaluable first experience with an author.

In other words, I'm envious. I can't ever have that first experience with Smith again.
Ted, I hadn't heard that about Linebarger and Hubbard before. That's great! I'm intrigued, I'll admit, about Linebarger's response to Dianetics. I'll have to hunt it down. I've always wondered what Hubbard's contemporaries made of his plunge into messianism.
Ah, Jess, but can't I be *both*? But yes, you've put precisely the most positive spin on it. Personally, I think that if I approached someone like Cordwainer Smith or Alfred Bester when I was a callow youth, I wouldn't have been in a position to appreciate them, and might have missed out on the best bits. If anything, I'm glad that I've waited until now to read this stuff, as I think I'm just now equipped to really get what they're going for. That said, it is still a bit embarrasing to be so far behind the curve.
John, I'm currently halfway through the novella "The Dead Lady of Clown-Town," and I'm convinced that if it appeared in Asimov's next month, under a different name, it'd be on the Hugo ballot next year. It's just remarkable how little this stuff has dated. Walter Jon Williams, in the link Ted provides above, hits the nail on the head when he says, "I think Smith was writing for a twenty-first century audience all along." I'm endlessly grateful to NESFA for bringing this stuff back into print, but these stories and novel should be in readily available trade paperbacks from some big NY house, on the shelves of every B&N and Borders in the country!
I actually tried Bester as a teenager and wasn't that impressed. (I'm embarassed to admit it). On the other hand, Alicia tried The Stars My Destination last year--her first Bester--and loved it. So, yeah, trying these authors at the right time is important. I doubt a 40-year-old reading Edgar Rice Burroughs for the first time would find him particularly noteworthy. But when I was 13 the first three John Carter of Mars novels were everything I could ever want out of a book.
Yeah, Jess, I was lucky enough to start the Barsoom books at the age of 12 or 13, too, and they were everything I could have ever asked for. I didn't read Robert E Howard until I was in my twenties, though, and I was twenty-five before I read Lord of the Rings, and in both cases I think I'd missed the window of opportunity. I can admire them, for different reasons, but I didn't connect like I did with ERB at 12.

Interestingly, though, the Heinlein I read as a kid was the later, "mature" stuff. I didn't read a single Heinlein juvenile until last month (!)--Space Cadet--and completely loved it! I'm having to resist the temptation to go back and read all of his kid stuff now, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity. It's the kind of stuff that would have blown the top of my head off when I was twelve, but even at thirty-five I find it really enjoyable stuff.
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