Monday, February 13, 2006
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.
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.)
In other words, I'm envious. I can't ever have that first experience with Smith again.
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.