Science Fiction: The Wondrous Work of Cordwainer Smith
In a field where innovations quickly become influences, Cordwainer Smith remains almost unique. To the general public, he remains almost unknown.
Authors aren't always treated justly in their lifetimes—Smith died in 1966. Recognition, let alone popularity, sometimes eludes those who seem to deserve it most.
This isn't often the case in science fiction. From Verne and Wells through E.E. Smith and Weinbaum, Heinlein and Asimov, Pohl and Kornbluth, Zelazny and LeGuin, success has usually come quickly—even overnight.
Cordwainer Smith was an exception only in the relative sense. He was known to readers of SF magazines, and several of his books were published by lesser-known paperback houses. He was a cult figure to his fans—but he never won a Hugo or a Nebula, and never achieved widespread popularity.
Smith wrote of a future that stretched 15,000 years and as many light years beyond our own time—a future that was a strange blend of Occidental and Oriental cultural influences, entire cycles of history from atomic wars and dark ages through the adventurous conquest of the stars to decadent utopia—and beyond.
Across the stage of this immense pageant pass such bizarre figures as the manshonyagger war machines, the half-mechanified scanner pilots, the pinlighters who do battle in space through telepathic symbiosis with their cats, the Go-Captains who steer interstellar liners by mind alone and the animal-derived underpeople who perform most of mankind's labors in a distant age.
Guiding human destiny through the millennia is the mysterious Instrumentality of Mankind, which is something like a political elite, but not exactly; something like a priesthood, but not exactly. Much of Smith's writing takes the form of an invented mythology, rather than straight history—and it is often hard to separate the "real" from the "legendary."
Perhaps this will be the year Smith begins to receive wider recognition. Ballantine Books has already published the first complete edition of his only SF novel, Norstrilia, which has been arbitrarily chopped in two by a previous publisher; and The Best of Cordwainer Smith is scheduled for release soon (July for the Science Fiction Book Club edition, September for the paperback).
THE REAL SMITH
If Smith's influence has been slight until now, it may be because it takes a unique sort of experience to create the sort of universe he imagined. Smith's real identity—which remained a secret until shortly before his death—was Dr. Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, a world traveller who was an authority on Far East affairs, Oriental art, psychological warfare, religion and world literature.
His life will make a fascinating biography if anyone ever gets around to writing it. He was born in 1913, son of a retired judge who helped finance the Chinese Revolution and godson of Sun Yat Sen. His childhood was spent in China and, when civil war made life too dangerous there, in Japan, Germany, France and, occasionally, even the United States.
Besides learning six languages by his teens, Linebarger acquired a taste for literature—including SF—in all those languages. But to the world at large, he was a diplomat, college professor, Army intelligence officer and foreign policy advisor—his career as a science fiction writer was one known but to a few.
That career began as early as 1928, when a 15-year-old boy in China sold a story called "War No. 81-Q"—no one can seem to remember where. But Cordwainer Smith first appeared in 1950 when an obscure and short-lived magazine called Fantasy Book published "Scanners Live in Vain"—which had been making the rounds of editors for five years.
Readers weren't quite sure what to make of this story, in which the scanners, whose brains have been disconnected from their bodies save for sight, must read instruments to find out if their vital processes are functioning—and adjust them if need be. And if readers could grasp the scanners, what were they to make of allusions to the Instrumentality, and to the Wild that is inhabited only by the Beasts and the manshonyaggers and the Unforgiven?
Only gradually did Smith reveal the full scope of the universe in which "Scanners" and other stories take place. Most of the historical "facts" were set down in notebooks—one since lost. But his stories are not history, but experience—experience as seen by inhabitants of that universe who take for granted that which seems strangest to us.
It was five years—thanks to an interruption called the Korean War—before Smith began appearing in the magazines again, with "The Game of Rat and Dragon," wherein the pinlighters and their Partners protect the planoform ships that somehow travel under space, and live in such intimacy that "normal" human relationships have lost their meaning.
Strange and wondrous emotional situations became a hallmark of Smith's stories—the dancer driven to superhuman efforts at an interworld dance festival and briefly glimpsed by a Russian scientist of our own time in "No, No, Not Rogov"; the pilot who must remain awake for 40 years to steer her sailship in "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul"; the Go-Captain who must sacrifice his memory to save a lost starship in "The Burning of the Brain."
But paralleling these wonders was the growing revelation of the universe of space and time around them—a universe evolving in a strange way. The Instrumentality of Mankind, which has arisen out of the Ancient Wars of our immediate future to safeguard humanity, sees to the expansion of mankind among the stars, but also gradually establishes a suffocating utopia of the sort made familiar by Zamyatin and Huxley.
A drug called stroon, produced only on Norstrilia—a planet settled by refugees from Australia after the original Australia became a Chinesian city state—assures virtually unlimited lifespans, and the Instrumentality assures security and idleness. But for a few fighters and technicians, most worlds depend on robots and underpeople for essential labor.
Against this background takes place the drama of the Rediscovery of Man, a movement inspired by the underpeople and the more enlightened Lords of the Instrumentality—and aimed at restoring suffering, death, uncertainty and, most of all, freedom and hope.
This process, seen through stories written in the form of "explanations" of legends supposedly prevalent in a later age, takes place over 2,000 or more years—from the martyrdom of the dog-girl D'joan to prove that "whatever seems human is human" in "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" through the Casher O'Neill series set in the second century of the Rediscovery itself.
We see the final days of utopia, and the spiritual birth of one of the architects of the Rediscovery, Lady Alice More, in "Under Old Earth." Two lovers, freed from the utopian matrix to become "French," meet a tragic fate in "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard." And Lord Jestocost and the cat-woman C'mell conspire together to free the underpeople in "The Ballad of Lost C'mell."
Norstrilia, the novel intended to tie all these threads together, tells the story of Rod McBan, the richest boy on the richest world in the galaxy who, faced with a threat to his life at home, manages to buy Earth—lock, stock and barrel. Unexpectedly involved there with both the Instrumentality and the Holy Insurgency of the underpeople, he changes history without ever having intended it.
Smith's fiction is full of allusions which time never permitted him to resolve—the Bright Empire, the superhuman Daimoni, and others—and also full of an invented nomenclature derived from a dozen or more human languages.
Frequently reappearing are members of the Vomact family, derived from the ancient German VomAcht—which has a double meaning implying both benevolence and malevolence. Lord Sto Odin is "101" and Lord Jestocost "cruelty," both in Russian. Aojou Nanbien is an old Chinese name for Australia, spieltier German for "play animal," Tigabelas Malay for "13," etc.
For all these allusions, and some plots inspired by the classics—Dante's Inferno went into "A Planet Named Shayol," for example—the strength of Smith's work is that it convinces the reader it is really happening in his future, and that it is we, not his heroes, who are the "aliens."
Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, and the Earthport Tower to which it leads are taken for granted by Paul and Virginia, who are only vaguely aware of the ancient past that is our present. The contemporary age, and the ancient wars, ruin and reconstruction, and other ages that follow, are but myth and legend to them. The whole effect of Smith's presentation is weird—but intoxicating.
Smith's widow, Genevieve Linebarger, who collaborated with her husband on "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul" and other stories, has produced one posthumous collaboration, "Himself in Anachron," and more may be forthcoming. Occasionally—as with Robert Silverberg in Nightwings—someone has managed to duplicate his effects. But no one has replaced Cordwainer Smith. Perhaps no one ever will.
John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.