Desert Isle Keeper
The Rediscovery of Man
When you read author blurbs, the term “unique” gets tossed around a lot, as does “original.” One of writer who truly deserved those labels was Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, better known to Science Fiction fans as Cordwainer Smith. He is one of my all-time favorite SF writers and one whose stories I can read over and over again. Each time I do, I find something new.
Cordwainer Smith was a professor at Johns Hopkins and a noted expert in psychological warfare. He grew up in China, where his father was an advisor to Sun Yat Sen. Smith himself was bilingual and many of his stories owe their structure to Chinese storytelling. He wrote a couple of straight novels and a textbook on psychological warfare, but is best known for his Science Fiction short stories and one SF novel. All of his Science Fiction falls into a loosely connected series called The Instrumentality Of Mankind. This series, left incomplete at Smith’s death, tells the story of mankind’s voyage out to the stars, humanity’s slide into decadence, the revolt of the Underpeople, and The Rediscovery of Mankind.
In Smith’s universe we meet scanners – spaceship pilots who, because of the strain of the Great Waste of space, must have their sensory organs surgically blocked. The rich take stroon, a substance secreted by genetically modified sheep which confers immortality on them. These rich immortals are served by the Underpeople, beings who look human but are modified animals. We also encounter sailors who ride the solar wind in ships equipped with huge sails, cats who navigate spaceships while they fight interstellar dragons – which they see as mice – and more, lots more.
Because Smith’s world was left unfinished, the reader must not expect all loose ends to be tied up and all questions answered. No, there are always tantalizing hints of “there’s more” left around the corners of Smith’s stories. Also, his method of telling the stories is not “here it is”, but “this is how it was.” It’s as if we are hearing stories from the far distant past, myths even. A reader must not expect a tightly knit plot and story. No, Smith’s stories are marked by beautiful, allusive language and extraordinary feats of imagination.
Even the titles of his short stories are little gems:
- Alpha Ralpha Boulevard
- The Dead Lady of Clown Town
- Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittuns
- Golden the Ship Was – Oh! Oh! Oh!
- The Lady Who Sailed the Soul
To give you a small taste of Smith’s way with words, here’s the opening line of one of Smith’s best short stories, The Ballad of Lost C’Mell:
“She was a girlygirl and they were true men, the lords of creation, but she pitted her wits against them and she won.”
And here is a poem that is part of the ballad of C’Mell:
“She got the which of the what-she-did Hid the bell with a blot she did But she fell in love with a hominid Where is the which of the what she did.”
Marvelous allusive words that fill your mind with images!
I first read Cordwainer Smith in a “best of” anthology which featured his story Scanners Live In Vain. I read the opening sentences – “Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger.” – with puzzlement at first, then understanding and finally delight. This was not space opera, nor new age, nor cyberpunk SF, though Smith borrowed from space opera and influenced the latter two schools of SF. This was something like I had never read before but I knew I wanted more. Thankfully, a collection of Smith’s short fiction, The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith and his only full-length SF novel, Norstrilia, are still in print. Read them, and marvel.