Story written by Cordwainer Smith
Reading Cordwainer Smith is the closest a person can come to being the first person to set foot on a new planet. More than Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asmimov or Ray Bradbury or so many other brilliant writers who have created great works of science fiction, Smith is the author that defines the best of what the field can offer.
Years ago, Robert Silverberg pulled together the Worlds of Wonder anthology which was aimed at would-be science fiction writers. The idea was to place an assembly of the best in the field in the hands of people contemplating their way into the craft. The selection of stories was perfection itself: Fondly Fahrenheit, Alfred Bester; No Woman Born, C.L. Moore; Colony, Philip K. Dick; The Little Black Bag, C.M. Kornbluth; and Scanners Live in Vain. I devoured the contents, though I never proved up to the book’s intended purpose. Most of the stories gave me pause as I tried to understand their special qualities, but Scanners Live in Vain made me stop in my tracks. I had heard of most of the other writers in the collection, but not Cordwainer Smith. Why not?
Let’s just have you start with the Wikipedia entry. Paul Linebarger (who wrote under the unusual pseudonym) had one of those lives that seemed full enough without adding in the fact that he also wrote some of the most influential stories ever. Not to overplay matters, but Linebarger seems more in the mold of a Christopher Marlowe than our traditional idea of the cloistered artist.
Unfortunately,Smith had limited output: essentially one novel and one collection of short stories. Of course, Smith was busy being Linebarger and then he died too young for a writer who had some serious potential for those retirement years that never came.
In 1962, Galaxy Magazine first published another favorite of mine, The Ballad of Lost C’Mell. I have added a capture of the cover here just to give some idea how different Smith’s stories truly are. Anyone reader of short stories has come across the weird and unusual. Every writer has a little bit of the ornery built in and has managed to get down on paper (virtual paper perhaps) some piece of strangeness if only as an effort to get it out of their system. Sometimes you look it over and discover some merit to the work. Then, depending on the era, you might find that your weirdness happens to be in vogue. Once upon a time, Harlan Ellison collected some of the best weirdness and editors have been hoping for gold in them hills ever since.
But that’s just it. I don’t think the work that Smith was creating was his weirdness. The internal wiring for some people, artists and audience alike, is simply a little different. Linebarger had a complicated childhood which fed his creative output. I think we are reading some incredible art that rises above genre and oddity, but, for Linebarger, Cordwainer Smith helped make sense of the world. For people feeling adrift or damaged, I think he accomplished one of the rare artistic feats by providing them one more line back to shore.
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You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 220 more to go.
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