That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

The What-He-Did: The Poetic Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith

She got the which of the what-she-did,
Hid the bell with a blot, she did,
But she fell in love with a hominid.
Where is the which of the what-she-did?

This cryptic verse opens “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” by Cordwainer Smith, and may serve as emblematic both of some of the author’s persistent themes and his own rich and distinct strangeness. Smith was one of the Great Peculiars of science fiction, producing strong, intricate, highly-wrought, highly weird stories that will never be mistaken for the works of anyone else. No one else had a mind like Smith.

But then perhaps nobody had a life like Smith, whose real name was Paul Linebarger. Paul’s father was a politically involved lawyer close to the Chinese Revolution, and who became a close advisor to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic—sufficiently close, in fact, for Sun to become young Paul’s godfather. Paul grew up not only in China, but in France and Germany, and spoke six languages.

His Chinese name, Lin Bai-lo, has been translated as “Forest of Incandescent Bliss,” and inspired one of his pseudonyms, Felix C. Forrest, which, if you’re sufficiently polylingual, can be read as “Lucky Forest.”

Paul received a doctorate in political science from Johns Hopkins, and taught at Duke University and at Johns Hopkins’ Institute for Advanced International Studies in Washington. During the Second World War he advised the Chinese government and specialized in psychological warfare, a subject for which he literally wrote the book. (Psychological Warfare, Infantry Journal Press, 1948.) He was involved in the Korean War and the Malayan Emergency, and was promoted colonel in the army reserves. He advised President Kennedy.

And with all this, he managed to write under a large number of pseudonyms. A political thriller as Carmichael Smith, poetry as Anthony Bearden, a pair of novels as Felix C. Forrest, and then the science fiction as Cordwainer Smith.

(The pseudonyms may have been necessary. An advisor to governments and the military, Smith almost certainly had access to a great deal of privileged information. Any fiction by Dr. Paul Linebarger may have been subject to a great deal of scrutiny in that paranoid age, and if any content was deemed subversive or critical of government, he could have lost access to material necessary to his work. Little did the government suspect that in his SF, probably deemed too trivial and ridiculous to examine closely, Cordwainer Smith was not only undermining certain notions of government, but science fiction itself.)

The science fiction was not an immediate success. The story “Scanners Live in Vain” suffered five years of rejection by all the major science fiction magazines until it was published in 1950 by Fantasy Book, a minor market. There it came to the attention of editor and writer Frederik Pohl, who saw its virtues and published it in his widely-read anthology Beyond the End of Time, where it was immediately recognized as thematically and stylistically revolutionary.

Beginning with “Scanners,” Smith began to develop his enormous future history. Most of the stories are set over ten thousand years in the future, and feature gnomic references to Earth’s past: the First and Second Ancient Days, the Long Nothing, the invasion of the Originals, the rule of the Bright, the High Cruel Years, and most importantly, the rule of the Instrumentality of Mankind. The Instrumentality brought about a sterile utopia, and realizing it was a dead end, inaugurated the Rediscovery of Man, “bringing back governments, money, newspapers, national languages, sickness, and occasional death.”

In this far future there live also the underpeople, genetically modified from animal stock, uplifted to be the slaves of the true humans. The quest of the underpeople for their freedom provides the context for some of Smith’s best stories, including “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell,” “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” and Smith’s only novel, Norstrilia.

But it has to be admitted that science fiction has produced a lot of stories set in the far future, and more stories about despised minorities seeking freedom. It has to be asked what makes Smith’s stories so different from these others, and what makes them so memorable.

All that comes down to Smith’s voice, which was, and remains, nothing like any authorial voice before or since. While the stories and their effects are often elaborate, they are written in a prose that is completely accessible. Beyond the sort of neologisms to which all science fiction is prone, the writing is accessible to any literate reader.

But the straightforward sentences reference characters and a world that are often completely strange. Extreme emotions are displayed, and so is extreme cruelty. The stories take place in a distant time and place, and many are narrated from an even more distant future by a hieratic voice that may or may not belong to Smith, and which seems to ring down the ages from an impossibly remote and alien epoch.

Characters appear and reappear from story to story: the genetically modified underperson C’mell, the obstinate and unimaginably powerful Lord Jestocost of the Instrumentality, the rebel E’telekeli, and various members of the Vom Acht family. Some characters are hinted at in several stories before they appear in person. Other characters appear as their own identically-named ancestors or descendants (there are at least seven Lord Jestocosts).

This repetition of names and characters, along with passing references to the Long Nothing, the Bright, the Vom Achts, etc., serve to give the impression of a fully realized future, with a depth and history that extends well beyond the limits of an individual story.

It has been said that Smith was strongly influenced by Chinese literature, and indeed sometimes one has the impression that Smith’s stories are translated, a bit imperfectly, from the Chinese. I’m not competent to judge whether or not this is true, but it’s certainly clear that the stories are intended to be found artifacts of another culture, and succeed perfectly well on that level.

Despite the vast depths of time displayed and a profound moral seriousness, Smith’s stories are sometimes surprisingly playful. Characters’ names are often jokes, usually in a foreign language, and the stories are full of poetry, song, and impish rhymes. (“Clown Town,” “Alpha Ralpha,” “Think Blue, Count Two,” etc.)

I would like to suggest that the playful poetry and ludic rhymes may have an ulterior purpose. Paul Linebarger, remember, was an expert in psychological warfare, a discipline that involves hiding one message inside another. The poetry and song may be intended to lull the readers into a mild hypnotic trance, so that the message that follows may have greater impact. It’s similar to the incantatory style of Southern preachers, whose rhythmic cadences are intended to produce a similar effect on their parishioners.

An incomplete theme in Smith’s stories involves the return of religion to the Instrumentality. Smith’s once-nominal Christian faith grew stronger as he aged, and Christianity appears in the Instrumentality as the hidden, underground “Old, Strong Religion.” It’s clear from his surviving notebooks that he intended to write a series of stories in which Christianity to be reintroduced from space in a series of stories about the Robot, the Rat, and the Copt, whose identity is meant to echo the Christian Trinity. These stories were never written, due to Smith’s sudden death at the young age of fifty-three.

Still, there are obvious echoes of Christianity in some of the stories, most obviously in “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” where the martyrdom of the dog-girl D’joan is meant to echo that of St. Joan. (Joan Dog=Joan d’Arc)

The years of Smith’s greatest productivity were years in which the short story dominated science fiction, and he wrote only one SF novel, Norstrilia, which wasn’t published in its complete form until ten years after his death.

The novel is allegedly inspired by the Chinese classic A Journey to the West, which would certainly account for its picaresque plot, but what surprised me on my last reading of the novel was how fresh and contemporary Smith’s vision seemed. Norstrilia was first published in its intended form over fifty years ago, but it deals with nearly all the elements that now make up the Standard Model for cutting-edge science fiction (though handled in a decidedly non-standard way). Smith explores the consequences of genetic manipulation, artificial intelligence, greatly increased life spans, and the clash of wildly differing cultures. His characters change their bodies with ease, and the novel includes one transgendered character who is now very happy as a boy, thank you very much.

I think Smith was writing for a twenty-first century audience all along.

Smith may be an acquired taste, an idiosyncratic voice chanting the stories of an impossibly strange and distant future. Still, I can’t help but think that if you don’t get Smith, you probably won’t get the future, either.

Top image: cover image for “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” in Galaxy Magazine, Oct. 1962; illustration by Virgil Finlay.
Cordwainer Smith’s complete science fiction is available from NESFA Press as Norstrilia and The Rediscovery of Man: the Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith.
Visit the Cordwainer Smith Appreciation Page, maintained by his daughter, Rosana Hart.

impersonations-thumbnailWalter Jon Williams is an award-winning author who has been listed on the bestseller lists of the New York Times and the Times of London. He is the author of more than two dozen novels and collections of short fiction, including Impersonations, a new Praxis novel out now from Tor.com Publishing.

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