the Little Red Reviewer

Space Lords, by Cordwainer Smith

Posted on: January 6, 2012

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Space Lords, by Cordwainer Smith

Published in 1965

where I got it: purchased used

In a far future imagined by Cordwainer Smith,  an all powerful government, the Instrumentality, rules from the planet Norstrilia, and stays in power by being the sole producer of the anti-aging drug known as “stroon”.  With the help of faster than light travel, known as “planoforming”, humanity has colonized hundreds of thousands of planets.  Thanks to advances in genetic engineering, scientists can create animals in the shape of men. A cat, or a cow, or a bear or an elephant can have all the attributes of that animal such as strength or speed or appetite, all crammed into a human shaped being. Known as the underpeople, these animal people are not human and therefore have no rights. Used as servants and slaves, the underpeople are typically as ignored as the human lower castes they replaced. It takes care of the prickly problems of human rights, or not, as the case may be.

Most of these stories have poems or songs in them. And not the usual scifi fantasy badly put together stanzas with awkwardly forced rhymes and meter, these are little ditties that you actually want to sign.  I get the impression that Smith was, at heart, a hopeless romantic.  In a short yet wonderfully intimate prologue, Smith welcomes us to his world and offers some parallels to his short stories that we might be familiar with: Joan d’Arc, Dante’s Inferno, the story of Ali Baba, to name a few.  But don’t worry, you don’t need to be familiar or have ever even heard of any of those things to enjoy the magnificent fiction in Space Lords:

Mother Hitton’s Little Kittons – Smith makes a joke in the Epilogue that readers should take care not to let anyone under the age of twelve read this story, and it’s good advice. The Little Kittons are utterly horrifying.  Master thief Benjacomin  of Viola Siderea is going to steal the biggest secret in the galaxy. He’s going to find out what exactly protects the planet of Norstrilia, the first step in stealing even the smallest amount of the drug stroon.  Through murder and the gambling of the labor of an entire planet, Benjacomin gets closer than any foreigner has ever come to the truth. But as designed, the defences find him first.  A defense no one could possibly imagine or expect, he discovers to his demise the cruelty and vileness of Mother Hitton.

The Dead Lady of Clown Town –  told as a historic myth of sorts, this is the story of the doomed Elaine, and the twice doomed underperson D’joan.  Poor, poor Elaine. Through basic human error, she was assigned the wrong career, the wrong number, and sent to the wrong planet, her DNA tells her she is a lay therapist, but everyone on the planet of Formault III was born so healthy, so beautiful, so perfect, that no one is in need of healing, or midwifery, or poultices, or touch therapy. Elaine, bored and useless, wonders why she was allowed to be born at all.   And then she finds a door.  Out of boredom, she opens it.  To find a prophesying computer woman, and a secret home of undocumented Underpeople.  If Elaine leaves, the computers will know where the underpeople are, and they will all be killed for daring to live free.  Elaine meets D’joan, a little dog-girl, who believes in loving the humans no matter what. Even if the humans kill all the underpeople behind the nondescript door, D’joan would prefer to love them instead of hating them. What is the more powerful force? That of hating someone you believe is inferior to you, or loving all intelligent creatures as equals?  The longest story in the volume, this is just the beginning of Smith’s powerful storytelling.

Drunkboat – Planoforming may be faster than light speed, but it certainly isn’t instantaneous. Is it possibly for man to travel faster? More importantly, is it possibly for us to survive faster travel? Lord Crudelta masterminded a cruel method of getting someone to volunteer to attempt his new travel discovery – travelling through what is known as Space3.  Thus, Artyr Rambo dove through spacetime, only to be found unconscious and naked on the lawn of a hospital. The doctors do what they can to help him, but his slack body insists on “swimming” against the floor. They can’t wake him, they don’t know who he is, or how he got there.  When Lord Crudelta arrives via planoforming ship nearly two weeks later to claim Rambo, he’ll learn the price to be paid when humans are forced through space3.   A tragic and powerful tale, but people do crazy things out of love.

The Ballad of Lost C’mell – Times, they are a-changing, and even the high Lords have begun to view the underpeople as people, with actual human rights.  Lord Jestocost the 7th is one such Lord. When he attends the funeral of famous underperson athelete, he meets C’mell. Of Cat derivation, C’mell is employed as a welcomer, a honorably flirtacious host, what citizens of the original Manhome just might translate as Geisha. This is a tragic romance, C’mell knows they can’t be together. Jestocost does everything in his power to make their relationship safe for her, but only she understands the true risks an underperson must take to be with a true human. A thinly veiled civil rights story? Who knows, but stories like this are the reason ballads are written in minor keys.

A Planet Named Shayol – What might hell be like? Mercer knows where he’s headed, but he’s nervous all the same. The doctors in the satellite hospital above Shayol offer to lobotomize him, remove his eyeballs, anything he’d like, to help him survive the planet below. Shayol, needs an orbiting hospital, because it’s part of the prisoners punishment. And the residents of Shayol live a very, very, very, long time. An alternate, parallel circle of hell, there are no guards, no weapons, no towers on Shayol, only the underperson B’Dikkat in his cabin and the infectious (literally) dromatazoa. The residents of Shayol treat each other surprisingly nicely, taking care of and helping each other. Mercer comes to wonder if it’s not that awful of a place after all. He’s got a ladyfriend, and every few days B’Dikkat comes by with his syringe and checks on everyone’s growths and bodily progressions.  What was said about younger readers not reading about the Little Kittons? They probably shouldn’t read at Shayol either. I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t read it with my own eyes, but there are things even B’Dikkat isn’t capable of punishing.

I can rarely say it about a collection of short stories, but every part of Space Lords was absolutely excellent. Most, if not all of the stories in Space Lords have an emotional kick to them. It’s usually a tragic kick, but the kind of kick that gives you hope for our future, instead of taking it away. I’d never heard of Cordwainer Smith until a few months ago.  Offering prose that feels timeless and effortless, if you see a Cordwainer Smith at a bookstore, do yourself a favor and buy it. I know I will.

Stay tuned tomorrow, for a quick bio and further discussion on Cordwainer Smith.

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9 Responses to "Space Lords, by Cordwainer Smith"

The unfortunate thing about it is that unless it is a used bookstore a person is unlikely to see the works of Cordwainer Smith on the shelf, and that is a real shame. To their credit, NESFA has put out a nice collection of all of Smith’s writing called The Rediscovery of Man, but I’ve never seen it new on the shelves, had to order it from Amazon, I believe.

I was a bit worried with all my gushing about Smith that you wouldn’t like him or that he wouldn’t quite measure up to any expectations you might have had. I am so thankful that wasn’t the case. I was loaned the very book you have pictured (and later bought my own) from a friend who simply said that I had to read that first story, that it was unexpected and rare for sf written in that time period. But of course once I read it, and liked it, there was no turning back.

Smith is a romantic at heart, and his stories have their own romantic lyricism. He is one of the few authors where I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it. Vance has a unique voice with some of his short stories as well, but I have yet to read a Smith story where I felt it had any similarity with anything else I’ve read. He is a true master and unjustly not as well known outside the SF community as he should be, and is perhaps not well enough known within the SF community.

The Dead Lady of Clown Town ranks as one of my favorite short stories. It blew me away when I read it and it is one that has stuck with me for many years now.

If you want another really good short story collection of his, I’d recommend You Will Never Be the Same. I read it a few years back and liked it very much. One of these days I need to sit down with the entire collection and work my way through it.

You’ve been a reading machine here at the start of the year!

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I’m very spoiled with so much access to bookstores that specialize in good quality older printings. I need to remind myself that many people simply don’t have access to these kinds of things, or would prefer to buy new, or electronic. (just goes to show, if you want awesome used bookstores, move to Michigan! :D ) It would be wonderful if they started offering his works electronically, for Kindle or something.

I did also manage to get a copy of Smith’s The Planet Buyer as well.

I had planned to say that Shayol was my favorite, and then I changed my mind that maybe C’Mell was my favorite story, and then, nope, Drunkboat is my favorite. . . or maybe Clowntown. If I can’t decide which is my favorite, that means this is an incredible collection, and Smith is an incredible writer.

I need to finish my draft of Cordwainer Smith bio for tomorrow, don’t be surprised if you see some of your comments quoted in it. ;)

I’d “read ahead” a few books in late December, but now I’m out of stuff that I read ahead. The little bio posts are the only thing buying me time now!

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Reading ahead was wise thinking on your part, looking forward to the bio tomorrow. I’m the same way as you in that I really do have a hard time picking a favorite. I just remember having a really strong emotional connection to Clown Town and it is a story I passed on to a bunch of friends. C’Mell is another top one in the collection.

Wonderful review, in case I didn’t mention it. You truly have me wanting to drop everything and pull out one of my Smith books. I have the Planet Buyers book as well and another one of his novel length stories, both is older paperbacks, and as I mentioned I also have that massive tome with everything in it that he wrote. I’m sort of reluctant to go too quickly through his stuff because it will be sad one day when I know I’ve read all of the Smith stories there are to be read.

Looking forward to tomorrow’s bio.

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I really want to get The Rediscovery of Man by Smith. I almost did at Christmas time, but there were so many options that he sort of fell by the wayside. I could always just start collecting him second-hand…

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Gollancz have recently published a large section of their back catalogue in ebook formats including a lot of Cordwainer Smith but sadly not this collection. They do seem eager to give us a chance to read out of print titles though even if we can’t get lovely paper copies with those unique covers.

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I have all three of the NESFA Smith volumes, and they are all well worth the price, both for the quality of the books to the splendid contents. I amy have been the person who told Carl he should try Smith, if not I could have been but just didn’t happen to get there soon enough. Check out the NESFA website for a complete table of contents of the books.

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You aren’t, but the funny thing is that you are so much like my friend Jerry who loaned me his copy of Space Lords that I often feel you must be twins separated at birth. Your tastes in books is so similar. Age is similar. Knowledge of publishers, authors, literary history. But that is where it all ends as he is a single guy living in an apartment filled with books and you are of course married living in a big house with a beautiful yard.

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This collection sounds awesome. Another book to add to the reading list :).

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The two Baen Books collections When the People Fell and We the Underpeople contain ALL of Smith’s work, including Norstrilia and the four stories previously collected as Quest of the Three Worlds. For those who can’t afford the NESFA volumes they’re a cheaper alternative, and apparently taken from the NESFA text, ie in the latest revised and corrected versions.

So – everything Smith ever wrote? Well… not *quite*. When Norstrilia was published in 2 volumes as The Planet Buyer and The Underpeople Smith added some bridging material to the end of one and beginning of the other. Nine of it is essential to the plot, but it *is* Smith and it’s fun to read. Pity it couldn’t have been included in the current volumes as “additional material”. Likewise, the collection Space Lords referred to above contains a brief Prologue and Epilogue – again, interesting but not essential. However, it also contains a Dedication which is also a moving obituary tribute to Smith’s housemaid Eleanor. So now you know why Rod’s housemaid in Norstrilia has that name. Read it, and you will cry warm tears and understand Smith’s sympathy for the underprivileged which plays out in the struggle of the underpeople for their basic human rights. For Cordwainer Smith, too, had a dream.

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