Tue
Aug 18 2009 8:29am

An Introduction to “The Ruined Queen of Harvest World”

It’s as if I’d always lived part of my dream life—these memories of the future—in the strange, terrible universe of the Instrumentality of Man, with its animal-derived Underpeople and laminated robot brains, its enigmatic Lords and Ladies, ancient Daimoni, planoforming ships crossing the terrors of the Up and Out, Viola Siderea, the vast mushroom tower of Earthport rising from fabled Meeya Meefla... I seem to recall these gorgeous, wistful, alarming worlds of the imagination from childhood, alongside Homer and the Grimm Brothers. Yet few of those memorable tales were published until the early 1960s, when I was already 15 or 16, or older, coming into manhood, writing my own first stories. Those extraordinary titles (maybe of them provided by editor Fred Pohl, but drawn from the tales themselves)! “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” “The Lady Who Sailed The Soul,” “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” “Golden the Ship Was—Oh, Oh, Oh!” They twined into me, pressed tendrils into my brain and heart. And best of all, for this gauche Australian living on the edge of the rind of the world, they uttered a vast future where my homeland was not marginal, not ignored, not forgotten, but transfigured and central.

These days I live in downtown San Antonio, Texas, with my Texan wife Barbara, amid Mexicans for the most part, writing science fiction and popular-science fact and occasionally literary criticism. I have to admit this dislocation still surprises me. But in 1977, half my life ago, I had not yet left Australia’s shores even on a brief pilgrimage to the wider world, except endlessly in mediated imagination. Here’s what I wrote then, introducing an anthology of Aussie science fiction stories:

Australians subsist, as everyone agrees, in a hand-me-down culture. It is of the essence of culture, admittedly, as much to be transmitted as to be renewed, but ours is curiously threadbare and ill-fitting. If a son asks for bread, the odds are high indeed that his father will give him a stone... It’s an inevitable irony, then—and so, perhaps, no irony at all—that the world’s finest science fiction to date was forged to a significant degree in the Australian experience...
                            ...of an American writer, “Cordwainer Smith”.

I had gone in search of Cordwainer Smith twelve years before that, late in 1965, when his second paperback collection of sf stories, Space Lords, revealed that he was living at the time in Canberra, the Australian national capital. Astonishing! It named his stockbroker, a Mr. Greenish—how weirdly suitable, how star-craving mad, a greenish financial advisor!—and invited his American readers to look in on that worthy and “ask him if my credit is good.” A penniless student clutching my own just published scrawny first book of stories, a foolish gift I hoped to press into his hands, I flew at once from Melbourne on a prop jet to find him out, and found only that I had missed him. (Yes, I began my search with the Yellow Pages and a phone call to Mr. Greenish, who surely was aghast at my impertinence.) I did learn Smith’s real name—Dr. Paul M. A. Linebarger—after speaking to Bob Brissenden, reader in the English Department at the Australian National University, a decade or so later chairman of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, and a resolute supporter of funds for “genre writing” in the arts. Brissenden knew Smith’s secret identity. Alas, Linebarger had recently left, I was told, to visit some Pacific islands; if so, he never returned because, on August 6 of the following year, precisely 21 years after a nuclear weapon had obliterated Hiroshima, illness killed him at the appalling age of 53.

His last book was Norstrilia—named in the broad country accent of outback Australia, Nor-strile-yuh—about the boy Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBann from the immensely rich world Old North Australia. Here is how he described that planet, a place not altogether different from my homeland, with its gray-green landscape:

Somebody once singsonged it up, like this:
“Gray lay the land, oh. Gray grass from sky to sky. Not near the weir, dear. Not a mountain, low or high—only hills and gray gray. Watch the dappled dimpled twinkles blooming on the star bar.
“That is Norstrilia...
“Beige-brown sheep lie on blue-gray grass while the clouds rush past, low overhead, like iron pipes ceilinging the world...”

“It is incantatory stuff,” I commented years later, “taking us away from ourselves (if we allow it to) to bring us back. No Australian employing the multiple tongues of science fiction has written so well out of his native experience as Linebarger did from several visits.” I could have gone farther. Perhaps nobody in all the world had ever written the future so well, hauntingly, yearningly.

And then he had gone, barely more than half a century old.

We would never learn the rest of those stories, that history of the deep future, that golden journey—oh, oh, oh.

Well, certainly I’m not foolish enough to imagine I might add to them, might emulate that distinctive voice building layer by layer its deceptively simple confection of East and West, English old as Chaucer’s Tales, Chinese and Japanese voyages into myth and unfamiliar histories, echoes of Rimbaud, and who knew what else? But some reverberation of the voice of Cordwainer Smith drums away down inside, and finally I let it speak... not mimicry of the inimitable, but a respectful bow toward Linebarger’s shade, with a wry grin and maybe a wink.


Damien Broderick, regarded as the dean of Australian sf, has published more than 40 books in the last four and half decades. His two forthcoming short story collections, gatherings of his best short work from that long period, will be released this year by Wilder Publications: Uncle Bones: Four Science Fiction Novellas, and The Qualia Engine: Science Fiction Short Stories.

4 comments
Xander42
1. Xander42
Thankyou Damien.

I'm Australian too, and only discovered Cordwainer Smith in my 20s, but somehow Norstrilia's giant 'sheep' and hardy, laconic people are like an alternate future-history that still resonates with me.

I believe Mr Smith will one day be recognized as one of the great writers of the 20th century, in any genre.
C.D. Thomas
2. cdthomas
He saw our polyglot future before Dick, before BLADE RUNNER, before China Mieville. Praise and all love to him, for THE DEAD LADY OF CLOWN TOWN alone.
Jeffrey Carver
3. JeffreyCarver
What wonderful timing! I have lately been rereading Cordwainer Smith's stories, downloaded onto my PDA from webscriptions.net. An astounding mind and storyteller. If your new story is in the spirit of Cordwainer Smith, I am certain that I will enjoy it.
Xander42
4. Rosana Hart
Thanks so much for letting me post this article on
my Cordwainer Smith blog.

Rosana, Cordwainer's daughter

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