Have you read this book?
Whenever people talk about the greatest writers in science fiction history, you always hear names like Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Cordwainer Smith. Cordwainer, who? has always been my reaction. I mean, I’d go to a book store and see dozens of books by other famous authors prominently displayed, but nothing by anyone named Cordwainer Smith.
Well, two events conspired to put some works of his in my hands. First, C.S. Friedman cited him as an influence for her latest novel This Alien Shore. Second, I shortly thereafter saw an edition of a Smith short story collection called The Rediscovery of Man while I was at amazon.co.uk. I picked it up. As it turns out, it’s understandable that I’ve never seen any novels by Smith. He only has one–Norstrilla–and did most of his work in short fiction.
All of Smith’s stories take place in the same future history. And quite a future history it is, too. The writing style is a bit dated, but the richness of the universe Smith creates is just incredible. This guy invents more cool stuff in one paragraph than a lot of writers do in an entire novel. His world also has a sense of epic vastness, with a timeline stretching across 16,000 years. And though these stories are diverse as can be, there are common themes and elements linking them all, most notably the ubiquitous Instrumentalty of Man who are the ruling elite of the universe. The “What does it mean to be human?” question also figures prominently.
I’m not much of an SF historian, so I’m really not in a position to judge how creative Smith really was. As I said, he has a lot of great elements to his stories, since imitated many times, but did he really create them? Or did he borrow them himself from earlier works? With most of his stories written in the 1960’s, Smith was certainly in a position to borrow liberally from Golden Age genre SF, much of which I am unfamiliar with. With all the praise heaped on Smith, I have a strong bias towards crediting him with inventing most of it himself, but can’t judge definitively.
One example is the idea that there is some property of space itself that causes insanity or death. This is a core element of the story “Scanners Live in Vain”. It’s been done several times since then, but was it ever done before? I don’t know.
Incidentally, I found “Scanners” to be the best story in the lot. Perhaps that’s because the plot line is more traditional, and the narrative tension high throughout. Far too many of the rest of the stories are written as the re-telling of legends, with the ending essentially given away in advance. They would start out something like, “Well of course we know that James and Alice saved the universe from the evil hordes of aliens and fell in love, but let me tell you the story again anyway”. Some of the commentary in the book suggests that Smith used a Chinese narrative structure (he lived several years in the Orient, among other places), but since I’m also unfamiliar with Chinese storytelling, I can’t say if that particular type is or not. Regardless, it wasn’t something that I really liked.
Besides “Scanners”, I thought the other standout was the very disturbing “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons”, which shows the ruthless vengeance of the Instrumentality. But all of the stories are very readable and enjoyable.
Reading this book had a couple of interesting effects on me. For one, it made me retroactively lower my opinion of This Alien Shore because most of the elements I loved in that book were taken almost directly from Smith. It also made me wonder what other books might have been inspired directly or indirectly by Smith. For example, Jack Chalker’s Well World could have been inspired by Smith’s Rediscovery of Man. Was it? I don’t know. This book will surely keep me busy with similar speculations for years to come. Please note that I don’t think drawing inspiration or ideas from someone else is wrong. Far from it. But I do award extra bonus points for originality.
Cordwainer Smith was a pseudonym for Paul Linebarger.