Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Look for a red shoe

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.


  1. At least four of his stories are set before the Instrumentality.

  2. I feel much the same way about Smith. He's brilliant, and his stories have aged far better than those of many of his contemporaries, but I find him deeply unsettling and read him only in short doses. (That said, young SF fans would do well to read him over much of the derivative stuff being cranked out now.)

  3. He always haunted me. A Cordwainer Smith image: A highly sentient and immortal horse doomed to wander through an endless maze of crystal canyons, always hungry, never able to eat or die.... creepy enough for ya?

    Apparently, Smith wrote some SF in Chinese, published in Shanghai, now untraceable. His life was as bizarre as his stories (he negotiated the Chinese Republic's first silver loan as a teenager, was a bona fide secret agent and an expert on psychological warfare, and worked out some sort of mystical Presbytarianism.

    I still read the SF writers of the 1940-1970 era because they were, for the most part, outsiders and eccentrics, oddballs who did not fit in. They did not lead ordinary lives, and it shows in their work. The literary world thought they were trash. They were lucky if they could make the rent. Today's science fiction writers are utterly respectable professional people, like oral surgeons or insurance brokers. Perfectly nice people, but not even remotely describable as "outsiders". Their work, even when it is very good, does not have the same feeling.

  4. Feersum Endjinn seems even more like Smith to me, and Serehfa reminds me of Smith's Earthport.