Monday, 9 November 2009


We’re talking mid-teens to mid-twenties when I read Cordwainer Smith, maybe from around 1964-1974, maybe a little earlier, maybe a little later. We’re talking about the time when SF was hard to come by compared to today’s embarrassments of riches. We’re talking about the time when I was either at school or a student with little money to build up a meagre SF collection. I read every hardback SF in the library that I could find –the branch library round the corner, the school library which had some SF Book club editions, and late the college library with its small fiction section. I bought American SF magazines picked up cheaply in newsagents and second hand bookshops –Astounding/Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy and its companion magazines Worlds of IF and Worlds of Tomorrow. It’s possible I favoured Galaxy which had a flavour of social SF which made it more accessible and appealing to me. I do remember it often featured stories by Cordwainer Smith with their memorable titles and strange stories that were as memorable as their titles, though I remember most well the surreal Alpha Ralpha Boulevard (published in F&SF) which could have sprung from a painting by Salvador Dali (another early enthusiasm of mine).
Now it’s nearly forty years later and distanced from some of the enthusiasms of youth and have moved some way away, but never out of sight, of Science Fiction. Perhaps, like many others before me, I felt that it’s SF which has left me and not the other way around as when in the mid-60’s a new generation of writers with better skills began to displace the old guard which looked faded and dusty rather like EE Doc Smith did to me back then. But, just recently I’ve felt an urge to return to the SF of my youth, to reinvestigate it, to see if it could still charm me, or to see if I really had moved out of its neighbourhood.
A newly published attractive set of volumes containing the complete short fiction (and much more, and with two more volumes yet to come) of Roger Zelazny had just appeared from NESFA Press and I bought all four from and I’ve just finished reading the first. An impulse buy, a 900 page collection of Henry Kuttner & CL Moore of which I’m currently 200 pages in. Robert E Howard’s The Complete Chronicles of Conan, the stories in their original form before Carter & De Camp buggered about with them has been sitting on my shelf for over a year and soon to be joined by a companion volume of Howard’s other fantasy heroes. 

And then there are NESFA Press’s two volumes of the complete SF of Cordwainer Smith: The Rediscovery Of Man (all his short stories) and Norstrilia (his only novel). Originally published by NESFA in the 90’s, they’ve been kept in print in these solid editions ever since and the Science Fiction world should be suitably grateful.
We all know that Cordwainer Smith was really Paul Linebarger, a diplomat and expert in Far Eastern affairs, a man with important political connections, who died at the terribly early age of 53 when he was probably coming into his prime as a writer and would, no doubt have otherwise delighted us for many years to come. He had a new cycle of stories already planned.

And I think I’ve answered the unwritten question: do I enjoy his stories as much as I did when I was young? Yes, yes, yes. Perhaps I appreciate them even more.
Almost all the stories share the same timeline, albeit one spanning thousands of years and here they are published according to their internal chronology, rather than their publication date, in order to convey a coherence which otherwise might be lacking. The title The Rediscovery of Man refers to a period when the Instrumentality, the rulers of humanity, have allowed some danger back into the lives of the cocooned conditioned humanity. Norstrilia the novel is chronologically towards the end of the era and should be read after the stories as characters from some of them are either referred to or appear.
What is startling and so good about these tales is that they are not written from a conventional perspective. It is as if they were written in the future when their concerns are different from ours, when humanity is not quite as it has been. The narrator knows the end of the tale and often cheerfully informs us, the reader, of it and allows the story to proceed matter of factly to its inevitable end. We are presented with a story that is known to those of its time but are privileged to learn the secrets behind the story, the reality behind the myth, the final true fates of its protagonists.
So welcome to the future of the scanners and pinlighters; the Underpeople and their heroes D’Joan (whose story echoes that of Joan of Arc), T’Ruth the strange turtle girl who helped Casher O’Neil take back his stolen world, and C’Mell who saved the boy who bought the Earth; the return of pain and danger to Man; the secrets of the planet Shayol and Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons; and wonders more strange than anyone could have imagined except Paul ‘Cordwainer Smith’ Linebarger, SF’s best kept secret.

1 comment:

FreeRangeAuthor said...

I couldn't agree more with your assessment of Smith - he ranks up there with Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe for otherworldly weirdness, and unique narrative voice. I discovered Smith in the back issues of Galaxy/IF of my father's collections, in my teens (1970's). A Planet Named Shayol was among the first I read. (Have you noted the similarity of the sf gimmick in Shayol to that of Card's novel, Treason? Card has claimed he never knew of Shayol when he wrote Treason).

I also have the NESFA Press volumes of Smith's work.

One later author who evokes an eerie future universe, Ray Aldridge - his stuff reminds me a lot of Smith and Vance. Unfortunately, there's no collection, so you have to hunt his short work down in back issues of F & SF. His single trilogy may be easier to find in second hand stores - The Emancipator Trilogy (check Amazon). I highly recommend Aldridge, if you love Smith or Vance. Sadly, Aldridge hasn't written much since the 1990's - he's a potter by trade, used to have a ceramic web site, now defunct. I'm sure he's still alive, just not writing.