Friday, May 28, 2010

Cordwainer Smith - John Clute

From the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited with Peter Nicholls

"Most famous pseudonym of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (1913-1966), US writer, political scientist, military adviser in Korea and Malaya (though not Vietnam). A polyglot, he spent many of his early years in Europe, Japan and China, in the footsteps of his father, Paul M.W. Linebarger, a sinologist and propagandist for Sun Yat-sen. He was a devout High Anglican, deeply interested in psychoanalysis and expert in "brainwashing" techniques, on which he wrote an early text, Psychological Warfare (1948; rev 1954). Right-wing in politics, he played an active role in propping up the Chiang Kai-shek regime in China before the communist takeover.His
interest in China was profound - he studied there, and there edited his father's The Gospel of Chuang Shan (1932 chap France), writing as well several texts of his own, beginning with Government in Republican China (1938); the style of some of his later stories reflects his attempts to translate a Chinese narrative and structural style into his sf writing, not perhaps with complete success, as the fabulist's voice he assumed (FABULATION) verged towards the garrulous when opened out into English
prose. He began to publish sf with "War No. 81-Q" as by Karloman Jungahr for The Adjutant - a high-school journal - in 1928; the tale bore some relationship to the Instrumentality of Mankind Universe into which almost all his mature work fitted. Before beginning to write that mature work, however, CS served with the US Army Intelligence Corps in China during WWII and published 3 non-sf novels: Ria (1947) and Carola (1948), both as by Felix C. Forrest, and Atomsk: A Novel of Suspense (1949) as by Carmichael Smith. After that date he published fiction only as CS.His
first CS story, and one of the finest of his mature tales, "Scanners Livein Vain" (1950), appeared obscurely in FANTASY BOOK 5 years after it had been rejected by the more prestigious sf journals (although John W. CAMPBELL Jr had penned an encouraging rejection note from ASF), perhaps because its foreboding intensity made the editors of the time uneasy, perhaps because it plunges in medias res into the Instrumentality
Universe, generating a sense that much remains untold beyond the dark edges of the tale. Scanners are space pilots; the rigours of their job entail the functional loss of the sensory region of their brains. The story deals with their contorted lives and with the end of the form of space travel necessitating the contortions: it is clear that much has happened in the Universe before the tale begins, and that much will ensue. The Instrumentality dominated the rest of CS's creative life, which lasted 1955-66, with individual stories making up the bulk of several collections
- including You Will Never Be the Same (coll 1963), Space Lords (coll 1965), Under Old Earth and Other Explorations (coll 1970 UK) and Stardreamer (coll 1971) - before being re-sorted into 2 definitive vols, The Best of Cordwainer Smith (coll 1975; vt The Rediscovery of Man 1988 UK) ed John J. PIERCE and The Instrumentality of Mankind (coll 1979); and subsequently resorted again, this time definitively, as The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Fiction of Cordwainer Smith (coll 1993). A similar complexity obscured the publication of his only full-scale sf novel,
Norstrilia (1975), which first appeared as 2 separate novels - each in fact an extract from the original single manuscript - as The Planet Buyer (1964 Gal as "The Boy who Bought Old Earth"; rev 1964) and The Underpeople (1964 Worlds of If as "The Store of Heart's Desire"; rev 1968). Along with Quest of the Three Worlds (coll of linked stories 1966), the 2 re-sorted collections and Norstrilia assemble all of CS's sf.The Instrumentality of Mankind covers several millennia of humanity's uncertain progress into a FAR-FUTURE plenitude. Before the period of "Scanners Live in Vain" a shattered Earth is dubiously revitalized by the family of a Nazi scientist
who awake from SUSPENDED ANIMATION to found the Instrumentality, a hereditary caste of rulers, under whose hegemony space is explored by scanners, then by ships which sail by photonic winds, then via planoforming, which is more or less instantaneous. Genetically modified animals are bred as slaves ( GENETIC ENGINEERING). On the Australian colony planet of Norstrilia, an IMMORTALITY drug called stroon is
discovered, making the planet very rich indeed and granting the oligarchy on Earth eternal dominance, with no one but Norstrilians and members of the Instrumentality being permitted to live beyond 400 years. (Norstrilia deals with a young heir to much of the planet's wealth who travels to Earth, which he has purchased, discovering en passant a great deal about the animal-descended Underpeople.) Human life becomes baroque, aesthetical, decadent. But a fruitful concourse of Underpeople and aristocrats generates the Rediscovery of Man - as witnessed in tales like
"The Dead Lady of Clown Town" (1964), "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" (1961) and "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" (1962), which embodies a sympathetic response to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s - through which disease, ethnicity and strife are deliberately reintroduced into the painless world. Much later an adventurer makes a Quest through Three Worlds in a Universe seemingly benign.The Instrumentality of Mankind remains, all the same, a fragment - as, therefore, does CS's work as a whole - for the long conflict between Underpeople and Instrumentality, the details of which are recounted by CS with what might be called oceanic sentiment, is never resolved; and CS's habitual teasing of the reader with implications of a fuller yet never-told tale only strengthens the sense of an almost coy incompletion. This sense is also reinforced by the Chinese ancestry of some of CS's devices, which inspired in him a narrative voice that, in ruminating upon a tale of long ago, seemed to confer, both with the reader and with general tradition, about the tale's meaning. Alfred Doblin (1878-1957) ( GERMANY) has also been suggested as a significant influence, both for his early expressionist work set in China, like Die drei Sprunge
des Wang-Lun ["The Three Leaps of Wang-Lun"] (1915), and for his surreal metamorphic sf novels - none translated - like Wadzeks Kampf mit der Dampfmaschine ["Wadzek's Struggle with the Steam-Machine"] (1918) and Berge, Meere und Giganten ["Mountains, Sea and Giants"] (1924; rev vt Giganten ["Giants"] 1931). CS's best later stories glow with an air of complexity and antiquity that, on analysis, their plots do not not always sustain. Much of the structuring of the series is lyrical and incantatory
(down to the literal use of rather bad poetry, and much internal rhyming) but, beyond stroon, and Norstrilia, and Old Earth and the absorbingly described SPACESHIPS, much of the CS Universe remains only glimpsed. Whether such a Universe, recounted in such a voice, could ever be fully seen is a question which, of course, cannot be answered."

4.5 out of 5

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