Book Review: Quest of the Three Worlds and Stardreamer by Cordwainer Smith

Cordwainer Smith is an anomaly in the science fiction field.  The closest analogy I can think of to his singular work and career is that of James Tiptree, Jr. Both writers came out of the intelligence community, adopted pseudonyms to hide the truth about their day jobs from their science fiction readers, and wrote with such brilliance that they set the field on its proverbial ear.

Nobody writes like Cordwainer Smith.  He comes way out of left field with such wild visions and concepts, a huge, intricately woven tapestry of a galaxy ruled by the bureaucratic Instrumentality and served by robots and surgically enhanced animals in human form called underpeople.  There’s so much to the Cordwainer Smith universe that it is impossible to express it in a few words.

The first Cordwainer Smith science fiction story to appear in print was “Scanners Live in Vain,” which was published in Fantasy Book magazine way back in 1950.  The story was rejected by all the major magazines of the time before this periodical accepted it without payment.  Strange irony.  How could the editors not have recognized its uniqueness, its brilliance?  Much later, the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America voted it a place in its anthology “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” as one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time.  Many top science fiction writers credit Cordwainer Smith’s writing as a major influence on their work.

So who was this enigmatic, elusive artist?  His real name was Paul M.A. Linebarger.  He traveled the world in childhood and adulthood.  He spoke numerous languages.  His godfather was Sun Yat-sen, one of the leaders of the 1911 Chinese revolution.  During World War II while serving in the army he was involved in army intelligence and psychological warfare.  Besides the science fiction for which he was renowned, he wrote spy novels and nonfiction books on psychological warfare, China, and Far Eastern politics.

Why all this whoop-de-doo about Cordwainer Smith?  Well, when I attended Norwescon science fiction convention a month or so ago, one of my fun things to do was browse through the used books in the dealers’ room.  Lo and behold, what did I find one morning but some old Cordwainer Smith paperbacks, cute skinny little relics of the time paperback books fit into your pocket, lovingly wrapped in little plastic preservative baggies.  I immediately grabbed them up, more than astonished at the price – a buck each, can you imagine?  I would have paid ten, probably twenty times that.  Not for many authors, no, but for Cordwainer Smith, absolutely.

One of the books is an Ace paperback copy of “Quest of the Three Worlds,” a slim little volume with a cover price of 40 cents and a cover that has nothing to do with the stories inside.  The rough-hewn painting looks like an alien landscape with some spaceships.  Ah, well.  The book is marketed as a novel but actually is a collection of four novelettes and novellas Smith wrote and published independently from one another in science fiction magazines in the early 1960s.  The text has an abundance of typos, and the exaggerations in the introduction about Smith’s prolificacy are sheer nonsense, but none of that matters.

I had never read these stories, the titles of which are “On the Gem Planet,” “On the Storm Planet,” “On the Sand Planet,” and “Three to a Given Star.”  For some reason, because they were not included in the seminal work “The Rediscovery of Man,” I had an idea that they were minor, lesser stories – but nothing could be further from the truth.  From the first pages I was inexorably drawn in to the weird, wonderful world of Cordwainer Smith.  Bizarre as it is, I felt I was coming home again.  Home, that is, to the unique sense of wonder that Smith ignites.  He has some sort of wild, amazing presence in his prose that grabs you and whisks you off to worlds unknown.  He’s never imitative; he doesn’t write like anyone else I have ever read.  He is utterly in command of his material and of his readers’ imaginations.  He has the courage to venture forth into truly strange places, but he also has the courage to imbue the strangeness with hints of ancient culture such as the old strong religion, the man in pain on two crossed sticks of wood, and the sign of the fish, all forbidden references in the world of the Instrumentality.  He is never petty; he deals in big concepts, outlandish characters, larger-than-life emotions.

The other book I picked up is a short story collection called “Stardreamer.”  It too has a cute cover, this time of some buildings that look like pink and green marshmallow houses with a cartoon-like circular spaceship up above.  I emphasize the covers only because there is such an imbroglio these days by self-publishing writers about cover art.  Bad cover art can conceal beauty within.  Not the ideal situation, but there it is.  Anyway, this book starts off with three stories from the grand interconnected Smith universe and then has a number of Smith’s earlier works, some of which do not fit into the mix.  I picked this up mainly because it has a Cordwainer Smith story in it whose title always intrigued me but that I had never read:  “Think Blue, Count Two.”  Isn’t that a dynamite, compelling title?  I’ve wondered about it for decades, as I have never been able to find a copy of the story, which does not appear in the collection “The Rediscovery of Man” although perhaps it should have.  It’s a great story set in the era of one of my favorite Cordwainer Smith pieces, “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul,” during which interstellar spacecraft with huge sails and bubbles trailing behind with humans in cryogenic sleep ply the darkness between solar systems.  In “Think Blue, Count Two,” three humans awaken in the terrifying loneliness of deep space, and an unusual failsafe device prevents a horrific conclusion.

Marvel universe?  Forget it.  I’ll take Cordwainer Smith any day.  It would be wonderful if someone would make a series of movies based on his works.  I think if I had to compare his stories to any motion picture they would be like the wild sense of wonder of a film like “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Anyway, if you want to take off on a really wild ride, pick up a Cordwainer Smith book.  Any of his science fiction works will do.  Put on your psychic seat belt, hold on tight, and get ready to rock.  Cordwainer Smith delivers the goods.

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