Saturday, July 10, 2010

SF Masterworks #10: Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man

Short fiction of 5,000 to 20,000 words dominated American science fiction in the 1950s.  Published almost exclusively in genre-specific magazines that had only been existence for twenty years or less in most cases, these magazines made a name for themselves by being known for carrying the works of say a Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, or Robert Heinlein, to name just a few of the many renowned SF writers whose legacies are tied, at least in part, to the 1950s pulps.

There was another author writing then who also was mainly a short fiction writer, one not quite so famous as the more prolific writers mentioned above, but one whose works have received much praise in the near half-century since his death.  Cordwainer Smith is the pseudonym for a top Pentagon official, Paul Linebarger.  Linebarger was the son of an American legal adviser to Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen and he lived in China for much of his childhood, taking in elements of Chinese culture that would later be utilized in several of his fictions.  Linebarger also became known for writing the training manual that the Pentagon used for maintaining psychological warfare.  Yet despite these accomplishments, Linebarger was dissatisfied and he decided to try his hand at writing SF under the chosen pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith.

This collection, The Rediscovery of Man, contains most of Smith's published short fiction.  There were several editions.  First, there was the 1970s The Best of Cordwainer Smith, from which the Gollancz edition of The Rediscovery of Man, and then in 1993 NESFA Press released its own The Rediscovery of Man, which included even more of Smith's short fiction, leaving out only one novel and a couple of incomplete drafts.  It is this NESFA edition that was read for this review and while there are probably differences in organization (the NESFA edition placed the stories in a rough storyline chronological order rather than a publishing order), there should not be too many problems in discussing the overall value of Smith's stories, whether they be published in the smaller Gollancz edition or the larger NESFA one.

Smith's fiction, despite being written between 1950 and his death in 1966, has aged rather well, at least in comparison to his contemporaries.  While he is not known for having a great literary style nor for a series of spectacular events within them, Smith's fiction contain a mixture of elements that make reading his stories a pleasure.  Before discussing the Instrumentality history, it perhaps is best to note that Smith's fictions are not military SF akin to those of Heinlein.  Nor are they "hard" SF based on the science of the 1950s.  Neither are they space exploration stories or strict sociological stories referencing the then-present.  No, his stories were neither beast nor fowl and perhaps that is why Smith's fictions went out of print soon after his death and have never been praised as much as the authors listed above.  But there is something about them, something that might be hard to pin down at first, which makes his stories, when read as a whole, one of the more intriguing SF creations of the 20th century.  Let's start with one of the earliest stories, "Scanners Live in Vain," published originally in 1950:

She pulled the long gold-sheathed wire out of the pocket of her apron.  She let its field sphere fall to the carpeted floor.  Swiftly, dutifully, with the deft obedience of a Scanner's wife, she wound the Cranching Wire around his head, spirally around his neck and chest.  She avoided the instruments set in his chest.  She even avoided the radiating scars around the instruments, the stigmata of men who had gone Up and into the Out.  Mechanically he lifted a foot as she slipped the wire between his feet.  She drew the wire taut.  She snapped the small plug into the High-Burden control next to his Heart-Reader.  She helped him to sit down, arranging his hands for him, pushing his head back into the cup at the top of the chair.  She turned then, full-face toward him, so that he could reap her lips easily.
This quote, which is given in order to provide some description of the Scanners, is at first glance not elegant at all.  Smith's prose is stripped of all but the most functional of adjectives, plus there are elements such as "Cranching Wire" and "High-Burden control" that seem a bit technical and hard to imagine without further context.  But within even this descriptive paragraph there are some interesting elements.  What are these "instruments" that are set in the Scanner's chest?  What are the "radiating scars?"  Why is the Scanner's wife performing a duty that seems to be a humble, daily exercise akin to bathing an incapacitated loved one?  Below is one more short paragraph that provides a lot of understanding to what is transpiring:

Even with this luxury of senses, he scanned.  He took the flash-quick inventory which constituted his professional skill.  His eyes swept in the news of the instruments.  Nothing showed off scale, beyond the Nerve Compression hanging in the edge of Danger.  But he could not worry about the Nerve-box.  That always came through cranching.  You couldn't get under the wire without having it show on the Nerve-box.  Some day the box would go to Overload and drop back down to Dead.  That was the way a haberman ended.  But you couldn't have everything.  People who went to the Up-and-Out had to pay the price for Space.
There is a terrible tragedy implied in one becoming a Scanner.  Smith does not linger overmuch on scenes such as this, and in his latter stories, elements such as this that provide brief glimpses into a person's souls and to the motivations that drive such animae are presented in more indirect and yet even more powerful scenes, such as the ones found in "On the Gem Planet," where Smith introduces very powerful stories in a rather quaint fashion:

Consider the horse.  He climbed up through the crevasses of a cliff of gems; the force which drove him was the love of man.

Consider Mizzer, the resort planet, where the dictator Colonel Wedder reformed the culture so violently that whatever had been slovenly now became atrocious.

Consider Genevieve, so rich that she was the prisoner of her own wealth, so beautiful that she was the victim of her own beauty, so intelligent that she knew there was nothing, nothing to be done about her fate.

Consider Casher O'Neill, a wanderer among the planets, thirsting for justice and yet hoping in his innermost thoughts that "justice" was not just another word for revenge.

Consider Pontoppidan, that literal gem of a planet, where the people were too rich and busy to have good food, open air, or much fun.  All they had were diamonds, rubies, tourmalines, and emeralds.

Add these together and you have one of the strangest stories ever told from world to world.
Within this odd introduction, Smith alerts the readers not just to the wealth (yes, pun intended) of characterizations that shall be explored, but he also reminds readers of his past stories about how he has covered elements such as justice and how easily it could be perverted into revenge, or how love, ambition, and desire can imprison as well as free people.  This story contains more metaphors for the human condition than most of Smith's other stories, making it a personal favorite, but it is also quite direct about how our frailties can continue to haunt us long after we ourselves have, as Shakespeare put it, "shuffled off this mortal coil."

And that is the engine of Smith's stories involving the Rediscovery of Man.  After an unspecified future "dark age" where human weaknesses have led to chaos, destruction, and the enslavement of parts of the remaining humans, there is a rebirth of old cultures, old languages, and old traditions that contain not just the promise of something new, but also a warning that the old evils have not been eradicated.  These stories may not always pack a punch individually, but when viewed as a continuum where events or persons found in one story influence others, there are signs that Smith wove an incredibly deep and moving tapestry of human lives, dreams, failures, and evils in a future where the technology is but a trapping set around the central mystery of what it is to be human.

The Rediscovery of Man is certainly a "Masterwork" that is much more powerful than its modest publishing history might indicate.  Although most of the individual stories, when taken out of the context of the greater whole, do not reveal much grandeur or much in the way of stirring emotions, when viewed in the aggregate, these stories are powerful expressions of the various and sometimes conflicting elements of the human soul.  The Rediscovery of Man may not be fully representative of the types of fictions written in the 1950s Golden Age of American SF, as several of its elements presage the subsequent New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s, but it certainly is a work that contains much to appeal to readers living in the early 21st century.  For these reasons, The Rediscovery of Man is an enduring classic.


  1. Hmm, sounds interesting! I've not rwad anything by this author-you just dont come across the name in a book shop!

  2. Unless the author continues to move lots and lots of copies, usually after a couple of years they are out of print. That's what happened to Smith, as his works were published around a half-century ago.