Thursday, July 09, 2009

In Praise of Cordwainer Smith

I've been enjoying the short stories of Cordwainer Smith, perfect tales to beguile hours on 'planes, trains, and mass transit. He's no longer as well known as his heyday in the fifties, his work is no longer in print, and it was by accident a year ago that I came across him, when I chanced upon Smith's novel, Norstrilia. Greatly satisfied, I read it again recently at the same time I found a couple collections of his shorter works in paperback at a local seller. As circumstances would have it, I needed something for my California jaunt last week and Smith's science fiction tales proved just the thing.

He has a grand cosmic futurescape populated with curious figures and situations, often overlapping and never in a single story entirely explained. Reminiscent of JRR Tolkien, you cannot appreciate the scope of his vision unless visiting his works as a whole. Not a fully fledged explorer, what I've seen so far excites me. What is mentioned in passing in one tale bears out in epic scale elsewhere. His boldness is not expressed in wild imagination, rather it entices with speculation of questions that may or may not be answered. The reader's imagination, above all else, is stimulated and provoked into frenzy. In science fiction, this is a plus.

Take as an example A Planet Named Shayol, a magnificent short story that can be read here. This is the finest so far of what I've read, a bracing tale of human struggle amidst horrors of the mind and body. If it were an unrelenting exercise in the ghastly excesses of humanity, I'd not bother to mention it, but here as in all Cordwainer Smith's tales, there is an overt and powerful current of love; regardless of how far-flung the author's imagination is, it remains rooted in warmth and connection.


Alan E. said...

I agree enthusiastically with your comments on Cordwainer Smith; you have much to look forward to as you read his other work. However, the photo you include is not of Cordwainer Smith. (I am still trying to remember the name of the man in the photo -- another foreign policy expert, I think?) You can find several good photos of Smith, AKA Paul M. A. Linebarger, on his daughter's website,

wngl said...

Alan, the new pic should be correct.