Friday, May 28, 2010

Cordwainer Smith - Don D'Ammassa

From his Encyclopedia of Science Fiction :

"Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym of Paul Linebarger, a specialist in political science who spent extensive time in Asia and who wrote three mainstream novels under other pen names. Al-though his first science fiction story appeared in 1928, he would not return to that form until the appearance of “SCANNERS LIVE IN VAIN” (1948),
the first of his stories of the Instrumentality, a complex future history in which star travel is dangerous because of the existence of discorporate and malevolent intelligences. Space travel is achieved in safety only after humans learn to enhance the intelligence of certain lower animals and develop their own psi powers. Smith began to develop the concept in more detail with a series of short stories during the 1950s, including excellent tales like “THE GAME OF RAT AND DRAGON” (1955).
Smith hit his stride as a short story writer during the 1960s, producing one classic tale after an-other, most of them set in the Instrumentality universe. The Instrumentality begins as a rigid dictatorship. The uplifted animals are virtually slaves, and the repressive rulers tighten their grip by discovering and monopolizing the secret of immortality. Opposed to the rule of the Instrumentality are the Underpeople, an amorphous rebel group consisting of humans and uplifted animals. Smith never directly resolves this conflict, although some of his stories appear to be set in a distant future in which the inequities of the Instrumentality have been largely overcome. Stories like “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul” (1960), “A Planet Named Shayol” (1961), “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” (1962), and “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” (1964) expanded and embellished Smith’s universe while telling distinct and often emotionally moving stories. His first collection, You Will Never Be the Same (1963), mixed Instrumentality stories with others not in the series.
The Planet Buyer (1964) was the first Instrumentality novel. The protagonist has literally purchased the Earth, but when he sets out to visit his new property, he discovers that various people would much prefer it if he failed to arrive. It was meant to be published jointly with the collection, The Underpeople (1968). Eventually they did appear in one volume as Norstrilia (1975). Several other collections followed including Space Lords (1965), Under Old Earth and Other Explorations (1970), and Stardreamer (1971), which in combination reprinted virtually all of Smith’s short fiction. Virtually the same contents were later recombined as The Best of Cordwainer Smith (1975, also published as The Rediscovery of Man) and The Instrumentality of Mankind (1979). A subset of stories set in the latter days of the Instrumentality formed the quasi-novel, Quest of Three Worlds (1966). An even more comprehensive omnibus volume, also titled The Rediscovery of Man, appeared in 1993.
The proliferation of titles disguises the fact that Smith’s actual output was quite small, which makes his high stature among genre writers even more impressive. He had a distinct narrative style that often makes the reader accept a situation that might otherwise seem ludicrous, like a love affair between a human and a semi-intelligent cat. Many of his characters seem to have stepped out of a legend, although without losing their human qualities. Images from genuine legends, like the Trojan Horse, occur periodically in his work. Although there is an element of satire in most of the stories, it is subtle and never approaches parody. We always care about what is happening because he makes even the most bizarre situations seem real. Smith was one of a handful of writers whose literary sensibilities dramatically transformed science fiction during the 1960s, and the fact that he is rarely imitated is an indication of the uniqueness of his talent and not of a lack of influence on his fellow writers."

4.5 out of 5

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