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Cordwainer Smith
Gollancz SF Collector's Edition, 277 pages

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.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

Dr. Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger was one of the more interesting figures of the 20th century. He grew up in China, Japan, France, and Germany, and spoke six languages by his teens. He was the godson of Sun Yat-Sen, and worked with his father as legal advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek. He became Professor of Asiatic Politics at Johns Hopkins University, and wrote the standard text on psychological warfare. And under the name Cordwainer Smith, he wrote one fantastic science fiction novel, Norstrilia.

Norstrilia is part of a large future history covering tens of thousands of years, and many colourful characters. Smith mainly wrote short stories, and readers of those stories will recognize several of the characters that appear in Norstrilia, especially C'mell and the Lord Jestecost. The stories as a whole tell the history of mankind from the end of our civilization to its expansion through space under the watchful eyes of the Instrumentality of Mankind. The themes are a fusion of Smith's political opinions and his religious philosophy, and unfortunately, we'll never know exactly how it was all going to end because he died in 1966, with much of the story yet untold.

Described in these terms, Norstrilia sounds like a fairly conventional, if deeper than most, science fiction series from the 60s. But there was nothing conventional about Cordwainer Smith. He borrowed storytelling techniques from Chinese folk tales, added a poet's sensibility, and synthesized them into a style that was all his own. Take, for example, the opening of Norstrilia:

    "Story, place, and time -- these are the essentials.
    The story is simple. There was a boy who bought the planet Earth. We know that, to our cost. It only happened once, and we have taken pains that it will never happen again. He came to Earth, got what he wanted, and got away alive, in a series of remarkable adventures. That's the story."
And this from a description of the planet Norstrilia:
    "Take your pick of sick sheep, man, it's the sick that pays. Squeeze me a planet, man, or cough me up a spot of life-forever. If it's barmy there, where the noddies and trolls like you live, it's all right here."
The boy who bought the Earth is Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBan. The circumstances of his life on Norstrilia lead to the purchase, and set him on his adventures. The plot follows Rod to Earth and his meetings with people and places, all told in the remarkable voice of Cordwainer Smith.

A current problem for SF writers is that stories written two or three decades ago may now seem obsolete. Greg Bear has said that he feels that two of his early novels, Eon and Eternity, are now almost unreadable because of their basis in Cold War politics. This is not a problem for the stories of Cordwainer Smith. The scope of his vision and the uniqueness of his style remove them from a direct reliance on current events. Plus, in Norstrilia, there are moments of serendipity that serve to make the novel seem like it was written last week. Rod completes his purchase of the Earth with the help of a sentient computer, who, as one tactic, sends the largest amount of "Instant Messages" on record. Rod also becomes involved in a recurring sub-plot in Cordwainer Smith's stories, the plight of the underpeople.

The underpeople are genetically altered animals who act as servants and do the dirty work for humans. No doubt inspired by the Civil Rights movement when these stories were written, the underpeople's problems remain fresh and topical today, whether you read them as a metaphor for exploited people, or as a straightforward commentary on the issue of animal rights itself.

Regardless of the political and philosophical depth of his writing, the real reason to read Cordwainer Smith is for the sheer enjoyment of it. Whether you've read some of the short stories and are ready for a larger tale, or have not yet encountered Cordwainer Smith, a new edition of Norstrilia is a perfect opportunity to better acquaint yourself with a writer who is among the legendary figures of science fiction.

Copyright © 2000 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson, while not that much of a shopper, wouldn't mind a trip to the Department Store of Heart's Desires. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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