The beginning of summer’s long-delayed genuine warmth is a strong mnemonic trigger, effortlessly peeling back years and bringing treasured old reading experiences back to the forefront of memory. For me, many moons ago, summer was always a time for science fiction and fantasy – no idea why, since I read ample amounts of it in all other seasons too, but the start of this summer of 2015 randomly reminded me that it’s been a solid forty years since the summer of 1975, when I first encountered the science fiction of Cordwainer Smith.
The guiding lights at Ballantine Books, bless them, were for a short time hell-bent on bringing all the sci-fi of Cordwainer Smith out in colorful paperbacks for, it was certainly hoped, a wider audience than this author had ever had before – maybe in an attempt to elevate him above the “cult” status that was all he’d achieved before then.
Whatever the reasoning behind those wonderful reprint volumes was, I found a little blue paperback of The Best of Cordwainer Smith when it first appeared in the metal spinner-rack at Trow’s Stationary, brought it to my favorite summer reading-place, surrounded myself with beagles, and was drawn into the stories so completely that I forgot all about the heat of the day (and read late, late into the night by lantern light). And my own curiosity about this “Cordwainer Smith” person was echoed by Fred Pohl in his Introduction to the 1979 Smith collection The Instrumentality of Mankind:
“Cordwainer Smith” forsooth! The instant question that burned in my mind was who lay behind that disguise. Henry Kuttner had played hide-and-seek games with pennames in those days. So had Robert A. Heinlein, and “Scanners Live in Vain” seemed inventive enough, and good enough, to do credit to either of them. But it wasn’t in the style, or any of the styles, that I had associated with them. Besides, they denied it. Theodore Sturgeon? A. E. van Vogt? No, neither of them. Then who?
The Introduction to the 1975 volume The Best of Cordwainer Smith opens with a masterful bit of summary and deduction by J. J. Pierce, who pieces together the facts and basic outline of Paul Lineberger, the man who worked under the pen-name of Cordwainer Smith – an author, poet, and Sinologist who was born in 1913 and died in 1966, never sought the limelight, and whose sprawling invented science fiction worlds so obviously hinted at a backstory that, as Pierce points out, readers will never have fully dramatized:
Smith’s universe remains infinitely greater than our knowledge of it – we shall never know what empire once conquered Earth and brought tribute up that fabulous boulevard [in “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”]; nor the identity of the Robot, the Rat, and the Cop, whose visions are referred to in Norstrilia and elsewhere; nor what ultimately becomes of the cat-people created in “The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal.” … The world of Cordwainer Smith will always retain its enigmas. But that is part of its appeal. In reading his stories, we are caught up in experiences as real as life itself – and just as mysterious.
The incompleteness frustrated the hell of out me when I was first eagerly reading these stories (I very much doubt that I’m the only person who’s ever indulged in “Instrumentality” pastiche fiction), but nowadays, at age 28, I tend to agree with Pierce: the hints at some much bigger sense of organization add an allure to these stories.
And the stories themselves are so bracingly brilliant, from Smith’s standout debut “Scanners Live in Vain” to “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” to the terrifying “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons” to “Think Blue, Count Two” to “The Colonel Came Back from Nothing-at-All” to “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” in which even so far-flung a bastion of humanity as a world orbiting Fomalhaut can still dance to the ancient rhythms of human biology:
Human flesh, older than history, more dogged than culture, has its own wisdom. The bodies of people are marked with the archaic ruses of survival, so that on Fomalhaut III, Elaine herself preserved the skills of ancestors she never even thought about – those ancestors who, in the incredible and remote past, had mastered terrible Earth itself. Elaine was mad. But there was a part of her which suspected she was mad.
The brutally clean, orderly world overseen by the Instrumentality of Mankind (calm, emotionless super-telepaths) has flourished for thousands of years on the ruins and sub-strata of barbaric previous eras, and the Lords of the Instrumentality very much prefer it that way, as they try to explain to Lord Sto Odin in “Under Old Earth”:
Who can fly anywhere today without seeing that net of enormous highways? Those roads are ruined, but they’re still here. You can see the abominable things quite clearly from the moon. Don’t think about the roads. Think of the millions of vehicles that ran on those roads, the people filled with greed and rage and hate, rushing past each other with their engines on fire. They say that fifty thousand a year were killed on the roads alone, We would call that a war. What people they must have been, to rush day and night and to build things which would help other people to rush even more! They were different from us. They must have been wild, dirty, free. Lusting for life, perhaps, in a way that we do not. We can easily go a thousand times faster than they ever went, but who, nowadays, bothers to go?
In addition to the volumes of short stories, Ballantine also published Cordwainer Smith’s great novel Norstrilia, one of the all-time best science fiction novels ever written – with its attention-commanding opening sections about the unlikely centrality of the rough-and-tumble planet Norstrilia:
The place? That’s Old North Australia. What other place could it be? Where else do the farmers pay ten million credits for a handkerchief, five for a bottle of beer? Where else do people lead peaceful lives, untouched by militarism, on a world which is booby-trapped with death and things worse than death. Old North Australia has stroon – the santaclara drug – and more than a thousand other planets clamor for it. But you can only get stroon from Norstrilia – that’s what they call it, for short – because it is a virus which grows on enormous, gigantic, misshapen sheep. The sheep were taken from Earth to start a pastoral system; they ended up as the greatest of imaginable treasures. The simple farmers became simple billionaires, but they kept their farming ways. They started tough and they got tougher. People get pretty mean if you rob them and hurt them for almost three thousand years. They get obstinate. They avoid strangers, except for sending out spies and a very occasional tourist. They don’t mess with other people, and they’re death, death inside out and turned over twice, if you mess with them.
I recently burrowed through my moldering science fiction paperback collection (not with the kindest of intentions, I admit) and found all over again my trusty handful of Cordwainer Smith paperbacks and indulged myself in re-reading these great stories on a warm evening – no beagles this time, but all the rest of the wonder remained joyfully intact, I found.
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