On Rereading The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

Most of you have probably never heard of Cordwainer Smith, whose real name was Paul Linebarger, and yet he is one of the greatest science fiction writers ever. You don’t have to take only my word for it; he has been praised for his profound influence on the genre and on their own work by science fiction luminaries such as Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen Baxter, Robert Silverberg, and Frederick Pohl. These are the names of some of the writers who have written their praise of Smith on the edition of the book I own, but I have read and heard of others who have acknowledged the debt they owe Smith for the intelligence and insight that he brought to the field.

Why is he not better known? Perhaps part of the reason is the volume of his output. Most speculative fiction writers publish dozens of books during their careers, but Smith’s reputation rests mainly on one short story collection, The Rediscovery of Man, and one novel, Norstrilia. His most significant stories take place in a vast future history that covers over fourteen thousand years. The imagination he displays in constructing all the details of his worlds has never been and probably never will be equaled. I have written about Cordwainer Smith and his works in past posts in which I list some of my favorites among his short stories and I review a couple of his more obscure books that I managed to get my hands on. In those posts you can read more about his background and some of the main themes in his future history.

Why do I return to the subject of Cordwainer Smith’s incomparable short stories? Because I heard of a book of his that I had never seen and I found out that the library system has a copy and I reserved it. The book, called When the People Fell, was part of a comprehensive reissuing of his works, and has six hundred pages of stories. I thought that perhaps in this volume are some of his stories that I have not yet read. And just for fun, I thought I would reread all the stories that I have already read as well. Unfortunately, the person who had checked out that one library copy was hanging on to it, so then I thought (because I already had the brilliance of Cordwainer Smith on my mind) that I could read The Rediscovery of Man now, as a warm-up so to speak, since I already had a copy, and then when I finally got hold of the new volume, I’d read whatever else was in it.

That was the plan, anyway. The book has still not become available, but I can be patient. At least I’ve had a good dose of Cordwainer Smith through The Rediscovery of Man to satisfy my most urgent craving. Then, when the other volume arrives, you’ll hear more from me about this amazing author and the singular brilliance of his fictional worlds.

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