Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #8: Cordwainer Smith

For this review I'm going to abandon the tastes-change-and-you-may-need-to-appreciate-these-books-as-period-pieces tone I've been taking. I'm also going to adopt a less neutral tone: If you haven't read Cordwainer Smith's science fiction, you should give it a try. There's no guarantee that you'll like his work, of course -- tastes differ -- but you owe it to yourself to find out.

Not that there's much *to* try. In its most recent mass-market version, his science-fictional corpus consists of four books -- two novels and two short-story collections. Most of these take place against a common background, the future time of the Rediscovery of Mankind.

In this time, fifteen thousand years from now, humanity is recovering from utopia. Things were too safe and too stable for too long, and the result was stagnation and malaise. The Instrumentality -- the quirky meritocracy that rules the Earth (and is a power through much of the galaxy) -- decided to shake things up, reintroduce risk and change.

One of the main plot elements in Smith's work is the Underpeople -- intelligent humanoids, genetically engineered from animals, who provide most of the labor in this future. The Underpeople have no civil rights. Not that there's any shortage of other plot elements! Smith's stories are imaginative enough to offer the sense of wonder which is so often missing from the science fiction of authors who grew up reading science fiction.

The short stories (****). Cordwainer Smith's stories have appeared in several forms since the fifties and sixties. The collection I've seen most often is the Del Rey reprinting from the late seventies, which printed the stories in two volumes, "The Best of Cordwainer Smith", and "The Instrumentality of Mankind". The stories aren't uniformly wonderful. My personal opinion is that "The Best of..." really does have the best stories, while the second volume contains more than its share of clunkers.

Among these best stories are "The Ballad of Lost C'mell" and "The Dead Lady of Clown Town", which are key episodes in the never-finished taleof the liberation of the Underpeople. There's the oft-anthologized "The Game of Rat and Dragon", about a cat-and-mouse approach to fighting a space war. There's "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons", which introduces Norstrilia, which is the richest known planet, and one of the poorest. Several others. It seems insufficient to just rattle of titles, but the stories don't lend themselves to brief summaries. No matter, either you've read them and know whether they're for you, or you haven't, in which case it's worth your time to find out.

Norstrilia (****) is Smith's major novel. It's not as intense as his best stories -- the length makes that difficult -- but it may serve as a better introduction to his work and milieu, for readers who prefer novels. It features Rod McBan the 151st, who was born on Norstrilia, and would normally have spent his entire life there. To escape an enemy, however, he takes the advice of a forbidden computer which leads him through market manipulations which make him the richest man in the galaxy. It also makes him the galaxy's number-one *target* which is something his neighbors could do without, so they send him on a trip to Earth. (He bought it in the courseof those manipulations; he might as well go and claim it.) Rod McBan's tourof the universe created by Cordwainer Smith is, of course, our own tour, as well.

For the sake of completeness, I'll mention the other novel, "Quest of the Three Worlds" (*), which I consider to be one of his weaker efforts. Read this if you like Smith's writing, but it's not the best place to start.


Given what I wrote at the start, there's not much point in including my usual disclaimers and caveats here, so I won't.

Dani Zweig
Roses red and violets blew
   and all the sweetest flowres that in the forrest grew -- Edmund Spenser