the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for the ‘Cordwainer Smith’ Category

SAM_2423The Planet Buyer, by Cordwainer Smith

published in 1964

where I got it: purchased used

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Rod McBan the hundred and fifty first is the last of his illustrious line, so the law of Norstrilia allows him to have children. But he can’t control or properly develop his telepathy and is therefore considered flawed and handicapped, and no amount of therapy seems to help.  Rod will either pass the tests and be allowed to breed, or be given euthanasia drugs. On pastoral Norstrilia, only the strongest are allowed to survive. They may be the farmers of the immortality drug Stroon, but the Norstrilians are a strict, traditional, and pragmatic people.

It’s fascinating how the richest planet in the universe ended up  being sparsely populated by a bunch of farmers and their disease ridden mutant sheep. The narrative offers quite a bit of helpful background on how Norstrilia came to be. It borders on infodumping, but Smith’s easy going  and conversational style prose makes it easy to dive right in and feel like you are right there.

At the last minute, Rod is saved from the grueling tests by Lord Redlady, a representative of The Instrumentality (the governing body of the galaxy), and given the opportunity to visit  Manhome (Earth).  Not sure what decision to make, Rod consults with the family computer, which has been hidden away under ground. The computer’s response is basically “leave it to me”, and the computer begins playing the stock market with Rod’s family fortune. Before dawn, Rod is the richest man in the galaxy, richer than the Stroon markets, possibly richer than The Instrumentality. If there was a time to escape to Manhome, now is that time!

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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.

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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:

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.