the Little Red Reviewer

Let’s talk about Cordwainer Smith

Posted on: January 7, 2012

Doesn’t take much to guess that “Cordwainer Smith” is a pseudonym, does it? Maybe he wrote under other names (he did), or didn’t want to be recognized on the street (he didn’t). Even more so, the writing was nothing more than a fun side job for Paul Anthony Linebarger, a man who was first gainfully employed as a University professor, and then later worked for the US Government. For convenience, I’m going to refer to him as Cordwainer Smith in this little bio.

Born in Wisconsin in 1913, Smith spent much of his childhood overseas, mostly in China, but also France and Germany. After losing an eye in an accident as a child, it was almost assured that he would always be even more different from the other kids around him.   Feeling alone and different, we shouldn’t be surprised that so much of his fiction takes pain and suffering into account.

Perhaps the first writer of what would eventually be called as “new weird”, Smith became known for writing vivid and unusual science fiction.  His first published short story, Scanners Live in Vain, was written in 1945 and published in 1950, and has since been judged by the SFWA to be one of the finest short stories published before 1965.

Most of Smith’s short stories take place in a far future era where humanity has discovered faster than light (or at least near light speed) travel, we have genetically engineering animals to do all our manual labor for us, and a group known as the Norstrilians rule the galaxy based on their control of the anti-aging drug Stroon. Often characters are relatively normal people who have been put into situations beyond their control and must attempt to normalize and rationalize what is happening to them.  Yesterday I posted a review of his Space Lords, a collection of emotional, intimate, literary and often romantic science fiction tales.  (I’m so very temped to say it reminded me a little of Vandermeer’s collection City of Saints and Madmen, for each tale is written in a different style and to a different purpose, but they all, in the end, lead the reader to the same tortured place)  A happy ending is never guaranteed, but the message offered is usually one of hope in humanity. You can’t help but get the feeling Smith was a hopeless romantic.  There’s more Smith discussion in the comments of that post as well.

While searching around the interwebs, I found Cordwainersmith.com, the blog/info site/memorial run by his oldest daughter, Rosana Hart. A treasure trove of information, not only does she offer links to a few of his stories that are available for free online, and blurbs from authors who were influenced by Smith/Linebarger, but it’s her memories of growing up as “Cordwainer Smith’s daughter” that are the most fascinating.

A handful of Smith stories are available online for free, or electronically.  However, if you are looking for a physical book, your best bet is a used bookstore as very few of his collections are currently in print. Find yourself a good used bookstore, and if they have some Cordwainer Smith, buy it before someone else does. You’ll be happy you did.

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12 Responses to "Let’s talk about Cordwainer Smith"

Maybe it is that hopeless romantic in Smith that attracts me so much to his work, because I certainly consider myself one. Regardless of what it is, Smith’s sf stories just sing to me. There is something special there, something hard to define that makes me feel differently than I do reading the works of most authors. His fiction is certainly unconventional, especially when compared against the short fiction of his contemporaries, but boy does it pack a wallop.

Scanners Live in Vain is a great story, by the way. I often wonder, with stories like this, what it would have been like to be the average joe SF fan, walking into a store to grab a copy of this or that sf mag only to take it home to read what would turn out to be a true classic. When I read SF mags or anthologies today I often wonder if the stories that leap out to me will be read and loved decades later by new readers looking for a blast of nostalgia or if the world is changing too much for that kind of thing to be a reality.

I’m so glad Smith’s daughter has that website for him up. We had a brief conversation or two back when I first posted about Smith and she seems like a very sweet lady who understandably loves seeing her father’s work continue to have an impact today.

Cordwainer Smith (you gotta love that pseudonym) was an interesting individual with one of the most creative imaginations ever to be put down on paper. I’m thrilled that a good friend turned me on to his work a few years back and am thrilled that you decided to give him a try.

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I need to read Smith’s stories again. It has been years.

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I really need to read Smith. I should have bought A Rediscovery of Man after all…

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[...] The Little Red Reviewer on Let’s talk about Cordwainer Smith. [...]

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Norstrilians do not rule the galaxy – the Instrumentality of Mankind does. In fact, Norstrilians want little to nothing to do with anyone but their sheep and family.

What is actually most interesting about Scanners’ publication is that it ocurred in a semi-pro magazine after failing to place elsewhere. I believe that Fred Pohl read it there and, based on its quality, sought out more of the same.
Smith’s work is unique and wonderful and a must read. NESFA press offers a complete collection of his work in print.

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“Smith’s work is unique and wonderful and a must read”

That is is, Steve.

I just started reading The Planet Buyer last night and now know just where the title Norstilians comes from!

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Cordwainer Smith is one of my favorite SF authors. And if folks are looking for a great collection of his short stories, several years ago NESFA Press put together a beautiful hardcover collection of all of Smith’s SF short fiction. It’s (appropriately) entitled The Rediscovery of Man, and according to the NESFA Press online store is still available there (also available on Amazon). It’s a great collection, and particularly valuable for the considered sequence in which the stories are presented.

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Always glad to see people discussing Cordwainer Smith. You can see his influence in the early to mid time period Roger Zelazny stories. Zelazny wrote about similar characters in much of his sf. The http://www.cordwainer-smith.com/ site is a good one.
You are doing a great job of discussing classic writers who are commonly seen in the bookstores.
I’m anxious to see which author you talk about next.

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Glad people like my site… wish I had more time for it! I heartily agree with the other people who mention that the NESFA Press editions are the best, as very careful editing was done for Norstrilia and for The Rediscovery of Man. Everything my father wrote as Cordwainer Smith is in those 2 books.

Thanks for your review.

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Thank you so much for visiting and commenting! Most of the biographical information in the above post came from the site you lovingly put together, I hope I didn’t mangle anything too badly.

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I just got my Cordwainer Smith book (Spacelords) in the mail yesterday.

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Let me know what you think! I hope you like it.

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