Cordwainer Smith

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Cordwainer Smith was one of a number of science fiction writers doing some of his best work in the 1960s, just when I was buying and subscribing to science fiction magazines. Some of his stories were set in more or less present time, but most were in the far future, many after the end of a sort of utopia, when the directors of mankind decided to give back some of the old languages and other differences to make life more interesting and stressful.

This period is partially characterized by the existence of underpeople made from animal stock. These are essentially slaves, and have their own illegal and underground lives. Many of the practice the Old Strong Religion, and one of them is a God-like being with a son name Yeekasuous (not sure if that’s the correct spelling). So Christianity or something very like it is the underground religion. Just what Mr. Smith ( real name, Paul Linebarger) believed I don’t know, but I’m inclined to think that Christians generally behaved better when they didn’t have political power, as here. Whether that’s Smith’s belief, I don’t know.

Smith, or Linebarger, had an interesting background. He seems at one time to have been obsessed with science fiction to the point that he belived himself to be a space alien, or something, and had to undergo psychiatric treatment. He was also involved with the military, and is said to have participated in the Korean War, in which he devised a slogan which sounded like something patritotic, but actually meant something like, I surrender. I think he also was a member of the Trilateral Commission, or one of the other secretive organizations that some people like to construct conspiracy theories about. Detail I don’t know, but he seems to have been a very interesting man.

He was also well-known for having unusual titles for his stories (he only wrote one full-length novel): Think Blue, Count Two; The Game of Rat and Dragon; The Ballad of Lost C’mell; Scanners Live in Vain; Alpha Ralpha Boulevard; The Dead Lady of Clown Town. The last is a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. The Joan of this particular story is called D’Joan, because she’s made from a dog, and is protesting the treatment of the underpeople. Like the original Joan, she gets burned at the stake.

One of the planets in this future universe is Old North Australia, where gigantic sheep produce a product called stroon. Stroon confers immortality on people, so Old North Australia (or Norstrilia) is the target of many bad people, and has evolved some truly nasty defenses. The planet also imposes extremely high tariffs on off-world imports, so that no one can go crazy buying things, and life remains simple and undecadent. All the owners of ranches are rich, and maybe their employees too, but they don’t live in a sterotypically wealthy way, unless they elect to go off-planet. Then they may have some difficulty returning.

Smith’s one novel-length story is entitled Norstrilia, and tells the story of an heir to ranch who is unlikely to inherit because his telepathic abilities are undependable. He has some, but sometimes they entirely fade away, while at other times they’re so strong that he’s the equivalent of an amplifier turned too high. Somewhere cached on his property he discovers a war computer which he activates, and which embarks on a course of economic warfare, which results in him buying Old Earth–outright. Now he’s too important to be put to sleep, and he goes on a trip to Old Earth, where he finds out some of the secret things going on there, and visits the Store of Heart’s Desires, where he’s able to buy equipment that supplies him with telepathic abilities, so he can inherit his ranch.

That’s a quest story. Another is about another heir who stands in line to inherit political leadership of a planet before a coup disinherits him. He travels to various places to request funding to help him retake the planet, but in the end decideds that politics doesn’t interest him, and confines himself to trying to make sure the people now running his planet don’t damage the people or society.

What was Smith trying to say in these stories? For one thing that while utopia may be possible, it’s gives no real reason to live. That only comes through conflict. Interestingly, though, there’s very little armed conflict in Smith’s stories. Most of the conflict is interpersonal. Sometimes it has simply to do with circumstances, and how to deal with them wisely. Sometimes with love, and the things it will inspire people to do. Religion seems to be an issue, but one that is only referred to, rather than explained in detail. The politics of equality are also referred to, but rarely are they gone into in detail, and then only with reference to individuals. His stories aren’t beauty for its own sake, though they’re frequently beautiful, but there are messages in them that I haven’t entirely figured out yet. You might find it interesting to look for yourself.

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One thought on “Cordwainer Smith

  1. I’ve now read pretty much all of Cordwainer Smith’s science fiction. How I wish there were more. His style is so poetic and enthralling. His worldview comes through in the books but they’re never overdone. He was a master.

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