Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, a military officer who specialized in East Asia and psychological warfare. He wrote non-fiction and spy thrillers, but he is best known for the science fiction he produced in the 1960s. He wrote one science fiction novel, “Norstrilia”, and a number of brilliant short stories, most of which are gathered together in the collection “The Rediscovery of Man”. I have an edition from the British “SF Masterworks” series which was published in 1999.
Though Cordwainer Smith wrote only a little over thirty short stories, he is considered by many science fiction writers as one of the masters of the genre and a major influence upon their own work. Most of his stories are set in the same universe, Earth and its colonies from 2,000 to 16,000 years in the future. Humankind is ruled by a body called The Instrumentality of Mankind. Animals, called Underpeople, have been transformed into human form to serve humans. Considering how few stories he wrote, his unique universe is very richly developed. I haven’t the space to go into details, though I will in brief in the descriptions of the specific stories below, nor would I want to deprive you of the pleasure of exploring and discovering these worlds for yourself.
In my post on my favorite short stories of all time I included one of his stories, “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, and for a description of that story you can look up the post. Here are some of my other favorites:
“The Game of Rat and Dragon“. This was my first encounter with the author, long ago during my one abortive year at university when I took a course in science fiction short stories. In the anthology which was our text I discovered the story that changed my life, “I Have No Mouth but I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, about which I have elsewhere written, but of all the other stories in that volume this one by Cordwainer Smith remained with me down through the years. It tells of pinlighters and their feline companions who are sent out into deep space with starships to do battle with psychic creatures which live out in the darkness and feed upon souls. The humans imagine these creatures as dragons and the cats see them as rats. When these monsters are sensed, the humans launch their cat-partners at them to do battle with blazing light. It is a wonderfully-imagined concept, wildly original at the time it was first published and still a great read today.
“A Planet Called Shayol“. Shayol is the Hebrew word for hell in the Old Testament of the Bible. When crimes are so severe that criminals are deemed unfit for society, they are sent to Shayol as punishment. Microscopic creatures that live on the planet’s surface burrow into them and the humans begin to sprout extra organs, which are surgically removed and used for transplants by the rest of society. The prisoners are administered powerful pleasure-giving drugs after the surgery, ostensibly to keep them in some form of sanity. The amazing thing is that even when describing the horrors of this place and the grotesque appearance of the prisoners, Smith is able to inject humanity and sympathy in their interaction with each other and their plight. It is a stunning achievement in literature.
“Scanners Live in Vain” This is the story for which Cordwainer Smith is best known. It appeared in the first volume of “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame”, stories of distinction selected by members of the Science Fiction Writers of America from the years before the Nebula Award was begun. Scanners are humans who have been altered to be able to work in deep space. They have enjoyed high social status, a privileged position, but new technology has made them redundant. Furious at having been rendered obsolete, they decide to rebel, but one of them, Martel, tries to warn the rest of humankind. Like all of Smith’s work, this story was absolutely original and unique when it first came out, and hasn’t aged at all – it is still a wonderful tale. Other similar stories may have been written since, but Cordwainer Smith was the first to deal with these concepts in such a compelling way.
“The Lady Who Sailed the Soul“. This is a love story. The Soul is a starship that plies through deep space, taking colonists and supplies to new worlds. Special sailors are needed for these ships, who must be altered physically and then brave the dark loneliness of space for the sake of the passengers within. In a short subjective space of time they age forty years, leaving young but arriving as old folks. A beautiful woman, jaded with her fame and fortune, meets a sailor who has just sailed the stars and falls in love with him. When he returns to the planet from which he has come in a state of cryonic sleep, she volunteers to sail the craft that takes him back, condemning herself not only to the loneliness and pain of the voyage but the realization that when it is completed she will be an old woman. It’s a heart-touching love story and a rousing adventure too.
“The Dead Lady of Clown Town“. Clown Town is where the Underpeople, the animals that have been converted into humans for slave-service, live. The dead lady is a computer replication of a deceased elder politician. Into this strange world stumbles a woman named Elaine, who becomes involved in the struggle of the Underpeople for liberation.
I cannot recommend these stories, and the rest of Cordwainer Smith’s work, highly enough. Just writing about them makes me want to read them all again right away. They don’t write them like this anymore. For that matter, they never have. He is a unique, original writer. He died of a heart attack in 1966 at age 53. I wish he could have lived many more years and written many more books. As it is, his scant output is worth more than countless volumes of a lesser writer’s prose. He is one of the greatest science fiction writers ever, and if you are at all interested in science fiction and have not yet read Cordwainer Smith, you are in for a real treat, a great feast of unmatched and unmatchable prose.