Couple of weeks ago, to my great surprise, a writer named Ted Gioia wrote an article about science-fiction author Cordwainer Smith for the Atlantic. It was a good article, but what I found most remarkable about it was the fact that it was written at all. Cordwainer Smith was highly praised by those who appreciated him, but he was always very much a minority taste. Part of this was the fact that he wrote exclusively about a time 14,000 years in the future, and his style was if clear and accomplished, very eccentric. Think Iain Banks's Culture series for the scope and futuristic science, but with a society which is a lot stranger and an author who makes more demands on his readers' imagination. (Though the Player of Games might well be a Cordwainer Smith story.)
I have some of Smith's work sitting around the house, and today I picked up a book of short stories – Smith's forte was the short story – and was creeped out. I remember why I don't read read him very often.
I think the easiest thing to say is that Smith had an intense appreciation of how cruel the universe and humanity are. Maybe because he was a China expert working in the first half of the 20th century? Today's story was "Think Blue, Count Two" which superficially concerns the dynamics between three human beings trapped in a ship sailing between the stars and dragging thousands of frozen emigrants behind it. The one woman who's awake is the most beautiful person on earth, who is being sent to a distant colony to boost the average genetic beauty quotient. She also in the view of future scientists has a high daughter rating, meaning that the vast majority of human beings will instantaneously adopt her as a daughter-figure do anything to protect her. And even so it is almost not enough. She has to be saved by a mouse brain turned into a ceramic computer.
Well, this may give you some idea of whether you want to read Cordwainer Smith.Or maybe not. My description is a mere shadow of the reality. I could work all day and not get any closer to it.
If there is one further thing to be said, it's that Smith does not write in any detectable way as someone working in the 1950s and 60s. He is amazingly contemporary in his concerns and his style. He may be equally strange or equally familiar 100 years from today.