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When the People Fell
Cordwainer Smith
Baen, 833 pages

When the People Fell
Cordwainer Smith
Born in 1913, Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (Cordwainer Smith) was raised and schooled in China, Germany and other countries. At 6, he was accidentally blinded in one eye. A resulting infection caused him misery throughout his life. He received his Ph.D. in political science at age 23, wrote extensively about Chinese political issues, worked for the American intelligence community, taught Asiatic Politics at Johns Hopkins University and acted as an advisor to John F. Kennedy. During later life he became a devout Christian. He died in 1966 before realizing his plan to retire to Australia.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Norstrilia

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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The story is well known by now. In 1950 an obscure, short-lived magazine called Fantasy Book published a story, "Scanners Live In Vain," under the transparent pseudonym Cordwainer Smith. The story caught the attention of those people who did encounter the magazine because it was so accomplished, and it was quickly republished in an anthology edited by Frederik Pohl. Since the author's name was so clearly a pseudonym, there was some debate about who it might really be. In his introduction to this collection, Pohl says that speculation included Henry Kuttner, Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon and A.E. Van Vogt. All denied it, of course, and the style wasn't quite right for any of them, but this was surely far too accomplished a story for a complete novice.

Of course, we now know that Dr Paul Linebarger, the distinguished academic and diplomat who wrote under the name Cordwainer Smith, was not a complete novice. He'd written a couple of not very successful novels as by Felix C. Forrest and a spy thriller under the name Carmichael Smith, and the original version of "War No.81-Q" had first been published as long ago as 1928 when he was 15. But this was his first real attempt at science fiction, and he seemed to get it just about right. Nevertheless, it would be another five years before the next Cordwainer Smith story appeared, "The Game of Rat and Dragon" in Galaxy. After that, however, he produced a steady stream of stories, plus one novel, over the next decade until his death in 1966. In fact, even death didn't stop him: there are five posthumously published stories in this collection, though they are hardly among the best of his work.

At his best, Smith was such a distinctive and idiosyncratic writer that his work has never really gone out of style. But the number of posthumously published stories has made a complex tangle out of collecting his work. Various volumes appeared over the years, each one with new additions, until the definitive collection was published by NESFA Press in 1993. The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith contained all 33 stories, including both versions of "War No.81-Q." Moreover, it was carefully arranged according to the chronology of Smith's complex future history, The Instrumentality of Mankind, as it had been worked out by John J. Pierce, with six "Other Stories" that don't fit into the schema.

Now that pattern of ever-longer collections seems to have been reversed. This new volume from Baen, without acknowledging the NESFA Press edition, contains the same stories in the same order (though with a different introduction), but there are only 28 stories included. What is curious about this volume is that the five stories omitted are not the weakest or the least known. No, they are among the best and most famous stories Smith ever wrote: "The Dead Lady of Clown Town," "Under Old Earth," "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons," "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" and "The Ballad of Lost C'mell." Frankly, I can't think that any collection of Smith's work that omits these stories is worth the paper it's printed on. Not only are "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" and "The Ballad of Lost C'mell" the finest examples of the mythic style he perfected at the height of his career, they are also absolutely central to his history of the Instrumentality.

The style, of course, is what tends to attract people to Smith. At his best, and in those stories central to his future history, he had a style that recalled oral storytelling techniques, a sense of intimate, convivial sharing with lots of rhythm and repetition. He tended to use metaphor very freely, space was always "the Up-and-Out," and there were rhythms and subtleties in the way he used language that recalled the oblique formality of Chinese, a language with which he was very familiar. In "The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All," for instance, one character says we must "go to the power which is greater than space, go to the power which has sent him home, go to the place which is not a place, find the force which is not a force, force the force which is not a force to give his heart and spare it back to us." There's an almost sing-song quality to the language, and no-one in science fiction before or since has written in quite that way.

But underneath that style, Smith's work was haunted by the Cold War. The Instrumentality of Mankind sequence, though its height and greatest expression was set millennia in the future, begins in Soviet Russia in "No, No, Not Rogov!" with a scientist working on a doomsday weapon and using prisoners to test it out. In "Mark Elf" and "The Queen of the Afternoon" we learn that the Vomact family, whose name resonates throughout the rest of the sequence, began as escapees from Nazi Germany just as it was falling to Allied forces. It should be noted that the father of the Vomact sisters worked, willingly or not, on the Nazi space programme, these are not necessarily anti-authoritarian figures. In "When the People Fell" we see the Chinese authorities colonizing Venus by literally parachuting in millions of men, women and children, careless of how many might die in the process. It is a future built upon variations of totalitarianism. And even when the stories take us far away from the immediate aftermath of the Cold War we see the same patterns emerging. The Vomacts start as liberators and become authoritarian, the Instrumentality begins as a boon to mankind and becomes a form of despotism. The stories omitted from this volume centre upon the revolt of the Underpeople, and we can't get away from the fact that throughout the sequence we encounter remote yet incredibly powerful authority and in closer focus various forms of underperson. And in his first story, "Scanners Live in Vain," we are presented with people who have had to surrender their very humanity in order to venture into the "Up-and-Out," and in consequence have become mindless, robotic beings ready to commit murder without question in order to preserve their militaristic order. Smith seems to regard totalitarianism with a horrified fascination, something he finds himself drawn to again and again and again.

There is so much in these stories that is beyond our power to control. It is not just the authority that is careless of common humanity, though we meet that often enough. This collection is full of stories about our capacity to become monsters when we follow someone who is "brilliant, remorseless, implacable" as he puts it in "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal," rather than sympathetic, empathic, humane. From "No, No, Not Rogov" to "A Planet Named Shayol" we find monsters made by the intellect rather than the heart. It is false broadcasts, like those of Tokyo Rose transmitted to US troops in the Korean War that trick Commander Suzdal into visiting the terrible planet of Arachosia: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. (The monsters he discovers on Arachosia, "the worst people ever to get loose among the stars," are homosexuals, or rather women who have had to make themselves into men for the race to survive. Smith's stories are full of beautiful women and innocent girls, anything that runs counter to that particular vision must be an abomination. There are many such prejudices nested within these stories. In what is chronologically the last of the Instrumentality stories, "Down to a Sunless Sea," we still find that "Lari, because he was a male, knew more of the facts of the battle.") But there are other threats, other violences committed against humanity. Space is almost entirely populated with menace. It steals your humanity in "Scanners Live in Vain," it steals years of your life in "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" or in a different sense in "Himself in Anachron," it steals your mind in "The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-At-All" and "The Burning of the Brain," and it is filled with monsters in "The Game of Rat and Dragon." Smith's sympathetic heroes are constantly being called upon to make amazing sacrifices, because that is quite simply what heroes do.

Cordwainer Smith is a unique figure in the history of science fiction. At his best he was one of the most astounding writers the genre has produced. Unfortunately, the very best of his work has been excluded from this collection. If you have yet to discover Smith, there have to be better places to do it.

NOTE: It has been pointed out that the five stories missing from this volume were included in a separate volume from Baen, We the Underpeople, that also included Smith's only novel, Norstrilia. However, this information is nowhere apparent on the volume I reviewed, and so would be unknown to most potential purchasers of this book. Nor does that affect the broader point that this is, to all intents and purposes, the Complete Stories of Cordwainer Smith, and to omit from that collection five of the best and best known of those stories is a bizarre decision.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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