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.