Cordwainer Smith

Jeff VanderMeer • October 20th, 2007 @ 12:09 pm • Uncategorized

An interesting piece on the master of strange by Graham Sleight. I’m not sure what to make of this contradiction, though: “There are certain kinds of writing he’s definitely not interested in. He’s not much of a visual writer, for instance..” followed later by “The novel is as full of striking images as any of Smith’s work.” I’ve always found Smith to be a very visual writer, whether he actually spends a lot of time describing something or not.

Cordwainer Smith’s strangeness came from something Sleight alludes to–“Gary Wolfe suggested that the writers he was reviewing wrote future histories as ‘epic fables.'”–but doesn’t really follow up on, except to say if “future histories weren’t histories and weren’t about the future” what are they for? Mythic resonance wedded to unique and truly alien points of view might have been one answer, if fiction really has to be “for” anything. Sleight mentions that Smith might be working out a late-developed interest in spiritual matters and “reinforces one’s sense that in some senses the stories represent him working out a private mythology.” But I’m not convinced. I think it’s more likely that Sleight doesn’t recognize the very public mythologies Smith is working from, because when I read Smith I feel a resonance. I feel a subtext and a point-of-view that seem to me very much grounded in something universal. I don’t feel Smith’s strangeness is closed off–I feel more, as Wolfe said, that these are future histories rendered as epic fables, in part because that allows Smith to be both strange and universal. The fable format, or tone, allows the reader to accept the strangeness. (Nor is it a requirement, as Sleight at times alludes to, for Smith to explain more than he does.)

Sleight probably would’ve been better off talking about Smith in terms of visionary writing (per Moorcock’s definition/description in Wizardry and Wild Romance), and taken Smith out of the SF sphere entirely, because it seems somewhat futile to analyze Smith as Science Fiction, especially as Sleight admits while he’s doing it that “Smith was extraordinarily uninterested in what the future might actually be like.”

Here’s my short appreciation of Cordwainer Smith, for what it’s worth, published a few years ago. It’s a writer’s appreciation, not a critic’s appreciation.

CORDWAINER SMITH: An Appreciation

by Jeff VanderMeer

“In this world where all things have been done, where all thoughts have been thought, it is hard to find things which still prompt the mind with raw curiosity.” – From “Under Old Earth”

In elementary school, our teacher used to take us on bus trips to the public library. We would spend a few hours in the children’s section downstairs. However, they didn’t have any science fiction in the children’s section except for some stodgy Tom Swift books. So I would walk upstairs to the adult book section and browse through the SF stacks. They had these huge hardcover collections of If, Galaxy, and others. I would read through these volumes avidly, from cover to cover, devouring stories of outer space vampires and anatomy kits sent from the future and butterflies that could change the course of history. It made me feel smart to be in the adult section, even if a lot of it was above my reading level at the time and I didn’t always understand everything I read. What I did understand was the amazing sense of the alien that ran through those stories. They took me out of myself to completely different places. It was not an escape, though–I have to emphasize that. It was something much more than an escape: an affirmation of the mysterious and the strangely beautiful. Some of the mystery occurred because, as I have indicated, I didn’t always understand what I read, but much of it was hardwired into the stories. At the time, I was too engrossed in the stories to pay much attention to the authors. But now I know who I was reading: Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Judith Merrill, Robert Sheckley, Jack Vance, Robert Silverberg, Frederick Pohl…and Cordwainer Smith. Of all of the stories I read, Cordwainer’s work was the most alien, the most profoundly different, and not just because of the wonderful titles.

When, years later, I encountered Cordwainer again and knew from the echoes that I had already read “Scanners Live in Vain,” “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul,” “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” and “Under Old Earth,” then I also knew that I had come home–because the sense of the alien was still there. In between, I had been exposed to Proust and Pynchon, Nabokov and Angela Carter, but Cordwainer’s stories still held up after all that time, in ways that many of the other tales I had read in those old anthologies no longer could. On one level, I had dreaded re-reading those stories, because I felt certain that the sense of wonder would be gone and the old bones of the plots would stand out beneath the starved flesh…and I would, by re-reading, destroy my childhood.

But this does not occur with Cordwainer. A superior quality of the imagination still wins out, an unorthodox sophistication and honesty of intent. Individual phrases (“We cannot imagine any kind of love that is illegal”; “It was strange to see those girlish lips compressed in a momentary stammer of the soul”; “She did not know it, but therewith unborn futures reeled out of existence, rebellion flamed into coming centuries, people and underpeople died in strange causes, mothers changed the names of unborn lords, and starships whispered back from places which men had not even imagined before”) flit through the reader’s mind months after finishing such tales. Stories I had not appreciated before, like “Under Old Earth,” suddenly gained new depth and gravity through the reflected light of my other reading. The great oratory of the Instrumentality in that story, as steep and melodious as Shakespeare or a Greek tragedy, still catches in my mind at this very moment: “Most people want happiness. Good: we have given them happiness. Dreary, useless centuries of happiness, in which all the unhappy were corrected or adjusted or killed. Unbearable desolate happiness without the sting of grief, the wine of rage…” . Whether expressed through the lyrical, tragic, gruff underpeople or through the doomed Scanners, Cordwainer makes the reader long for events that have yet to occur, a revolution still centuries in the past. In the very faux archaic nature of his storytelling, Cordwainer had discovered a radical new approach.

When I began to write my own stories, I kept that lesson in mind: I imagined myself as a storyteller in the year 12,000 A.D., relating a tale from the year 11,500 A.D.; thus can the mythic blend with the science fictional with much benefit to both. Looking back, some of those early stories were overly influenced by Cordwainer, but I view them with affection anyway, because they represent an attempt to replicate my childhood reading experiences. The unfinished stories from that period are incomplete not because I lacked the skill to finish them but because, in a sense, Cordwainer had already written them.

Even today, I cannot help but hold in the back of my mind Cordwainer’s pristine example of how to synthesize the strange and the beautiful, the human and the sadly humane. I do not long for a return to a Golden Age of SF. Nor do I care about genres or schools of writing. All I really believe in are individual, eccentric writers, armed with genius-level imaginations. Writers who, molded by exposure to a unique time or culture, become startling original.

We read–or should read–for moments when our world slips out from under us and we find ourselves in an Elsewhere that seems, if not always physically real, then, no matter how alien, undeniably right. Some part of me will always be infected by Cordwainer’s wor(l)ds–it’s a disease I hope never to be cured of.

6 Responses to “Cordwainer Smith”

  1. Graham Sleight says:

    I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here, as my Smith books are currently stashed in storage pending a house move. So I can’t pull out textual examples terribly easily. But, re your first point, I’d say that I don’t necessarily see an “image” conveyed by a text as being necessarily a visual (or visual-only) phenomenon. The *image*, for instance, of what happens to the scanner when simulating sensation under the wire, is extraordinarily potent, but not just concerned with sight. (Not at all? Can’t remember what the extra senses are, whether a scanner can see consistently in both states.)

    About the closed-ness or open-ness of Smith’s mythos, I can see what you’re saying, but ain’t persuaded. I certainly don’t have the knowledge of oriental myth-sources that Smith did, and nor do I have that much time for the arguments of (eg) Joseph Campbell that different cultures’ stories can be rendered down as exfoliations of some ur-myth. And when a writer starts naming characters (and, I believe, giving them attributes) from his cats, he’s not exactly welcoming you in to his sources of inspiration… To take another example, how many of his 50s/60s audience would know “Le Bateau Ivre” when they read “Drunkboat”? The sources are out there, sure,

    Finally, I don’t think entirely divorcing Smith from an sf context helps. He did clearly have some sf-nal concerns: the impact of advancing technology on humanity, and what might happen to the spiritual dimension in peoples’ lives in a spacefaring society. But I’d suggest that tropes like this are means to an end, and the end was almost always aesthetic/moral/spiritual. To steal a simile from, I think, Frank Kermode: taking the sf out of Smith takes the clapper out of the bell.

  2. Graham Sleight says:

    Gah, sorry, incomplete sentence at end of para 2: “The sources are out there, sure, but I can’t see that they would be “very public” for Smith’s readers then. A little more now, maybe.”

  3. JeffV says:

    Graham:

    I think you’re trying to use lawyer-ese to get out of the first charge, re image. I take your point re SF, but I think you’re cutting Smith a lot less slack than some of the other writers you’ve covered, and you could’ve been more generous by thinking about Smith’s work in a wider context. In other words, I don’t think you and Smith are a good match, although I’ve enjoyed the majority of your looking-back pieces.

    JV

  4. Blue Tyson says:

    If you look at Free SF Online there are many links thanks to Baen to Smith stories from the book they have done, including Scanners Live In Vain for one.

  5. Mike Glyer says:

    By coincidence I happen to have just reread an old paperback collection of Cordwainer Smith’s stories, Space Lords, for which he wrote the preface and epilogue. The combination of his comments, and the stories themselves (including “Dead Lady of Clown Town” and “Shayol”), are suggestive that he was highly interested in making a spiritual exploration of the crises in racial relations that had produced, so near in time to when he was writing, Gandhi and the American civil rights movement. Though with a consciousness that all human history has been riddled by tragic combinations of over- and underpeoples.

  6. Cordwainer's daughter says:

    I just stumbled upon this discussion (while looking for something else) and read it with interest. I’m currently doing a major revision of my website on my father, should be up by early September if not before. Do come by.

    Rosana (Linebarger) Hart

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