Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith - Carol McGuirk

Essay in Science Fiction Studies, July 2001.

"Smith's stories are often framed as fragmentary tales of long-ago events. "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" is set, according to Pierce's chronology, around 13,000 AD; yet the viewpoint of its narrator is firmly retrospective: "You already know the end-the immense drama of the Lord Jestocost.... But you do not know the beginning, how the first Lord Jestocost got his name" (223). Smith's readers look far forward, his narrators far back. His heroes, however, experience their story's crisis as urgently present, forcing choices and events that may (like Martel's rescue of Adam Stone or the cruel burning of D'joan) change the world. Smith abandons popular sf's futuristic narrative tone and unilaterally forward-facing plots, achieving full freedom (looking backward, forward, and inward) to express his horrified fascination with time, "which tricks man while it shapes him" (143). His preoccupation with human time goes along with a preoccupation with death that may seem extravagant to critics because it goes against the grain of sf's utopian heritage, its emphasis on progress and change: in mortality, Smith selects a human problem that can be palliated but hardly solved by technological or social innovations. It is at any rate unsurprising that religion is so often touched upon in these stories, with their emphasis on time and mortality and their frequent representation of painful or ecstatic separations of spirit and body ("Scanners Live in Vain," "Drunkboat," "No! No! Not Rogov!" [1959]). Allusion does not in itself,"

4.5 out of 5

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