Friday, 24 August 2001

Cordwainer Smith: The Rediscovery of Man (1975)

Alternative title: The Best of Cordwainer Smith
Edition: Gollancz, 1988
Review number: 923

In the fifties and sixties, Cordwainer Smith was one of the most original writers in the science fiction genre. His stories include many undisputed classics - Scanners Live in Vain, The Game of Rat and Dragon, The Lady Who Sailed the Soul, The Dead Lady of Clown Town, for example - and introduced a level of psychological interest which was much greater than usual in a field generally considered fit only for the cheap pulp magazines. (Under his real name, Paul Linebarger was responsible for the US Army's textbook on psychological warfare.)

The original title of this collection reveals its purpose; it was presumably changed for this reprint because it would affect re-publication of the rest of Smith's output - a novel, another volume of independent short stories, and a collection of related ones. As the best of his work, it provides an excellent introduction to every aspect of his writing.

What is it that was - and in many cases still remains - distinctive about Smith's writing? He has a unique ability to express the alien in a single phrase; examples include referring to space travel as "going into the up-and-out" and the first lines of his earliest published story, Scanners Live in Vain: "Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger".

There is a breadth of vision about Smith's writing which marks him apart from his contemporaries. Like two of the most successful science fiction authors of the period, Robert Heinlein and (to a lesser extent) Isaac Asimov, Smith's stories can be fitted into a consistent conception of a future history spanning hundreds or thousands of years. (Smith's, reconstructed from the stories as his notes don't survive, covers about twelve thousand years.) Comparing Smith with these other authors, a clear difference is immediately obvious. Most science fiction of the time is concerned with technological change; there is a tendency to assume that American capitalism will always be the mainstream of human culture. Smith, on the other hand, is interested far more in social and psychological change, with technology being used only to illuminate his ideas.

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