His stories "throw torches over the underground lakes of the human soul"
October 5, 2018 9:34 AM   Subscribe

Ashley Stimpson and Jeffrey Irtenkauf (Johns Hopkins Magazine, Fall 2018), "Throngs of Himself": "Near the end of his life, [Cordwainer Smith] wrote to a friend: 'Life is a miracle and a terror. The progress of every day, any day, in the individual human mind transcends all the wonders of science. It doesn't matter who people are, where they are, when they lived, or what they are doing—the important thing is the explosion of wonder that goes on and on—stopped only by death.'" SFE entry. ISFDB entry.

The New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA) Press is a notable source keeping work by Cordwainer Smith in print: The Rediscovery of Man and Norstrilia. See also the Concordance to Cordwainer Smith.

The Johns Hopkins Magazine article links to some of his work online, but additional samples are available in their original form:

"The Game of Rat and Dragon," Galaxy, October 1955.
"The Burning of the Brain," IF, October 1958.
"Western Science is So Wonderful," IF, December 1958.
"No, No, Not Rogov!" IF, February 1959.
"The Nancy Routine," Satellite, March 1959.
"Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" Amazing, April 1959.
"When the People Fell," Galaxy, April 1959.
"The Fife of Bodhidharma," Fantastic, June 1959.
"Angerhelm," Star Science Fiction 6, December 1959.
"The Lady Who Sailed the Soul," Galaxy, April 1960.
"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard," F&SF, June 1961.
"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons," Galaxy, June 1961.
"A Planet Named Shayol," Galaxy, October 1961.
"From Gustible's Planet," IF, July 1962.
"The Ballad of Lost C'Mell," Galaxy, October 1962.
"On the Gem Planet," Galaxy, October 1963.
"The Good Friends," Tomorrow, October 1963.
"Drunkboat," Amazing, October 1963.
"The Boy Who Bought Old Earth," Galaxy, April 1964.
"The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal," Amazing, May 1964.
"The Store of Heart's Desire," IF, May 1964.
"The Dead Lady of Clown Town," Galaxy, August 1964.
"On the Storm Planet," Galaxy, February 1965.
"Three to a Given Star," Galaxy, October 1965.
"On the Sand Planet," Amazing, December 1965.
"Under Old Earth," Galaxy, February 1966.
"The Queen of the Afternoon," Galaxy, April 1978.

Project Gutenberg also has the following non-fiction books:

The Political Doctrines of Sun Yat-sen (1937).
Government in Republican China (1938).
The China of Chiang K'ai-Shek (1942).
Psychological Warfare (1948).
posted by Wobbuffet (17 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for this post!

I picked up an old copy of Norstrilia on a whim, based on the cover and the blurb alone. I've heard Smith's name for a while, but somehow I didn't even realize it was his book. Anyway, I can't say it's a terribly memorable story, and perhaps another example of an author who works better in the short-story form (like Alice Bradley Sheldon / James Tiptree, Jr., previously).

Then again, I might just need to re-read it more carefully.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:27 AM on October 5, 2018

A very good sketch of an extraordinary person.
Splendid post, Wobbuffet.
posted by doctornemo at 10:30 AM on October 5, 2018

I used to be a big CS fan, but recent-ish rereads left me feeling pretty weird-bad with regards to most of his female characters. Things I hadn’t noticed when I was younger, distracted by Big SciFi Ideas, really stand out now. Not an author I recommend anymore for a pleasure read, but something to dig into if you’re doing scholarly reading maybe.
posted by curious nu at 11:16 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't have any trouble with his women characters. He has a very male gaze, but so do I. Not everyone has to have the same gaze. His women are, so far as I can recall, able and intelligent. Mother Hitton, for instance, manages planetary defense capably, if ruthlessly.

My problem with him is that he writes like he decided to invent fiction without ever having read any. He rattles along lucidly enough for a while, and then, when he wants to hit a high point, falls into childishly over-excited, portentous intoning. And the doggerel! What on earth is with the doggerel? I didn't notice when I was a kid, because I hadn't read much fiction either, but I sure do now.

Nevertheless, I am still a little in love with C'Mell, who is two-dimensional, poorly written wish-fulfillment, however capable and self-controlled, and nevertheless more vivid in my mind than most people. That's how pulp fiction works.
posted by ckridge at 1:23 PM on October 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

"Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!"

The fuck, Cordwainer?
posted by ckridge at 1:25 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Can't wait to find time to crawl down this rabbit hole; "Scanners Live In Vain" is one of my all time faves.
posted by phooky at 2:02 PM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Once upon a time I had a book that had previously belonged to him. In keeping with Linebarger's Asian expertise, the owner's mark was a red ink chop that filled an entire flyleaf, maybe 4"x6", decorative borders and all script but his name in Chinese. Absolutely magnificent and unlike anything I have seen before or since.

I regret that the book (something by Oxford U Press, can't recall what) didn't make the cut on one of our periodic cullings. We all make mistakes.
posted by BWA at 2:34 PM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I read a lot of his stuff as a kid and loved most of it, but if the first ten pages of The Sand Planet were all I had to go on, I'd wonder whether the author was in the grip of some horrible but fascinating mental illness.
posted by jamjam at 3:32 PM on October 5, 2018

Come to think of it, it did remind me somewhat of The Kalevala.
posted by jamjam at 3:38 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Interesting guy and a good pistol, thanks.

I reread most of his stuff a few years ago and enjoyed it. I'm afraid if I read it a third time I will become disgruntled with the preciousness of the prose—which happened to me with Tolkien.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 3:54 PM on October 5, 2018

Er, post. WTF autocorrect?
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 4:38 PM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

ckridge: Speaking of the male gaze, one of Smith's stories "Think Blue Count Two" is kind of about that. It's written largely from the perspective of a young woman dealing with waking up on a space ship with two men. One of whom had been rather badly mangled by being frozen and had gone, what I can only describe as, full incel (despite the story predating that term by about half a century). I found it fairly remarkable that the antagonist was unequivocally described as horrendously damaged, and the correct action was to prevent him from hurting anyone and fix him with what are implied to be very psychologically intrusive surgeries.

The big thing that struck me though was the description of the young woman cluing into the danger even before it was explicitly manifest. It wasn't written as her realizing: "this damaged man is a threat". It was her realizing that men were dangerous to women, particularly in circumstances of isolation, and that this was a near-universal truth. Which is hardly a novel sentiment, but also hardly something I expect out of a male post-war American sci-fi author.

Without going deeper into it, Smith's attitude towards gender could not be described as modern in the least, (read "The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal" for an example), but I find it to be a neat look at where someone who was both remarkably intelligent and empathetic wound up with traditional ideas about gender as a starting point.

I also think what you find difficult with Smith is probably what I love most about him. He's writing science fiction when he appears to have been given a vague description of it on the back of a 3x5 card. He's doing this as a hobby, in his down time while being a university professor and doing sensitive intelligence work. And what he produced is so remarkable we're talking about it more than 50 years after he died. To borrow from Alan Moore, the dude was a monster '(from the Latin monstro; or "Great Googly-Moogly Lor' Lookit That!")'.
posted by Grimgrin at 4:40 PM on October 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

That one! I never got over that one.

Lady, if a man bothers you,
Think blue, count two,
And look for a red shoe.

More fucking doggerel, but it sticks with you. And the consummate action hero who is a subroutine of a program in a freeze-dried laminated mouse brain. And the implicit message that there are some young women for whom we are the chief danger, and for whom therefore it is our chief duty to create clever safeguards. There is something catastrophically wrong with that message, because it treats her as a precious cargo rather than as a protagonist, but as catastrophically wrong views go, it has some virtues.

He made up his views on gender relations and his prose style as he went along, and they were often, um, rustic, but he brought fearful energy to the job.
posted by ckridge at 5:57 PM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

There are definitely issues with his writing. And some of it is quite dated.

But Scanners Live in Vain still evokes very well for me the experience of disassociation/depersonalisation, and the longing to feel "real".
posted by allium cepa at 9:19 PM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Please keep in mind that the science fiction he grew up reading was Hugo Gernsback, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and such. His work is responsible in large part for the flavor of a lot of New Wave science fiction. He was trying to write science fiction that was echoing the flavor of Chinese literature. As to the issues with gender in his work, yes it is problematic to contemporary tastes. Then again so is pretty much anything that comes from male authors of the mid-twentieth century. It is like reading Mark Twain and having to keep in mind that his was the work of an abolitionist. Linebarger was a religious, conservative, child of privilege, with a youth that no doubt impaired his socialization. He was also someone whose principles were clear. Given that I would probably be someone he disagreed with religiously, politically, and socially; I have loved his work since I was a teenager.

filthy light thief, I would recommend that you start with the earlier stories and work your way up to Norstrilia. His work builds his world over time. Norstrilia is kind of a deep dive and without the support structure he has built previously it can be off-putting. I recommend that you see his science fiction corpus not as a collection but as one long novel of vignettes. The difference being that the novel of vignettes is clearly interrelated while a collection of future history stories can all stand alone without need for one another. It is a weakness of sorts. It also provides a more coherent experience than one might think.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 9:31 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Cordwainer Smith was a really interesting writer, but someone I have to read in the way that I read Lovecraft. His weird ideas about humanity allowed him to think his way to ideas that others didn’t think of. It’s been a while since I read his stuff, but there are scenes that have stayed with me.

The Instrumentality is a fascinating place, but what comes after (the name of which escapes me) felt to me like a galactic scale post-war US. Though I felt that the political slant of this article was odd, if it reflects Linebarger’s political views, I suppose that it makes sense that his idea of a good ending for humanity was a Leavitttown stretching all across the Milky Way. For what it’s worth I think it’s a testament to the complexity and sharpness of his ideas that I never twigged that the Instrumentality could be read as a galactic Soviet Union. Like a lot of writers, his dystopia is a lot more interesting than his utopia.
posted by Kattullus at 6:24 AM on October 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

Mother Hittons Littul Kittens ...Cordwainer Smith captured my imagination over 25 years ago when I stumbled on pavement copies of Norstrilia and the Best of... Alpha Ralpha boulevard and the ballad of lost C'mell ... they remain in my memory.
posted by infini at 10:25 AM on October 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

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