The Rediscovery of Man

Cordwainer Smith
The Rediscovery of Man Cover

Cordwainer Smith - The Best Of (1975)


"You have waited for me. I have waited too. It is time to die, perhaps, but we will die the way people did in the beginning, before things became easy and cruel for them. They live in a stupor and they die in a dream. It is not a good dream and if they awaken, they will know that we are people too."

'The Dead Lady Of Clown Town', 1964

"Scraps of knowledge have been found. In the ultimate beginning of man, even before there were aircraft, the wise man Laodz declared, 'Water does nothing but it penetrates everything. Inaction finds the road.' Later an ancient lord said this: 'There is a music which underlies all things. We dance to the tunes all our lives, though our living ears never hear the music which guides us and moves us. Happiness can kill people as softly as shadows seen in dreams.' We must be people first and happy later, lest we live and die in vain."

'Under Old Earth', 1966

Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym of Paul Linebarger, a man who lived a colourful life, (among other things, he wrote the book on psychological warfare). He also wrote a series of science fiction short stories, and his lone SF novel, 'Norstrilia', all set in the same vast future history. 'The Best Of Cordwainer Smith', (later reissued by Gollancz as 'The Rediscovery Of Man' in the SF Masterworks series), collects twelve of these stories and presents them in order of internal chronology. Written between 1950 and 1966, while the stories show their vintage, at their best they are a compelling mixture of untethered imagination and striking imagery.

Smith's future history, extending from around the year 2000 through 16,000 odd years beyond that, is held together by a couple of key concepts. The stories trace humanity's early attempts at braving the dangers of space travel, through to the formation of intergalactic empires, all under the guiding hand of the Instrumentality, a group of powerful people who rule humanity. The main narrative thread, alluded to and foreshadowed several times before it actually happens, is the Rediscovery of Man. The Instrumentality creates an environment for humanity free of pain, suffering and death, where most of the manual labour is carried out by robots, computers, and the underpeople - artificially uplifted animals with the intelligence and appearance of humans who are forced into menial servitude and treated as second class citizens because of their animal origins. This society soon slips into decadence and despondency. The Rediscovery of Man, humanity's salvation, can only be achieved not just by returning pain and suffering into human life so that it has meaning, but also by the emancipation of the underpeople.

Cordwainer Smith wasn't the first SF author to set all his stories in a mapped out, shared universe. What gives his stories their distinct flavour is in the telling of them. Smith sought to imbue his stories with the feel of future myths and legends, going so far as to base some of them on myths or stories from around the world, and adopted several techniques from Chinese fiction, learned from his time spent studying there. Although in practice this is hit and miss, this results in his writing being more ambitious and more interesting than many of the other pulp writers of the time. Like an SF Lord Dunsany, his stories are full of archaic words and fanciful turns of phrase; when it works, it gives the stories a genuine sense of mythic wonder, when it doesn't, his prose becomes repetitive and knotty. Perhaps more interesting is how this mythic approach effects Smith's attitude towards continuity. While there is a clear underlying narrative thread building up to the Rediscovery of Man, continuity between stories is frequently vague, making their exact nature in the overall chronology possible to guess at but difficult to pin down with any accuracy. There is a genuine sense of fragments of stories and history long since past, passed down through different media and contexts, from which the reader has to unpick the historical threads. The fact that all this happens in the far future, dressed up in the style and language of the distant past, creates an engaging disconnect.

The other thing that makes Smith's work distinctive is their sheer oddness. SF is frequently guilty of overexplaining. In a particular strain of the most traditionally science fictional SF, what is important, over characters, situation or novelty, is the extent to which the science of the fictional world is rationalised and thought out. Smith's stories are notable for how much they don't explain. Stories like 'Scanners Live In Vain' assault the reader straight out of the gate with a disorienting blend of bizarre imagery and neologisms. The future technology described, from the various dangerous ways of tackling space travel to the ambiguous powers of the computers, have seemingly been chosen for their power and resonance as images and ideas rather than functionality. Everything Smith describes, from solar sales so large they block out the sun to cat pilots hunting invisible space dragons to gorgeous golden ships bigger than planets, is gloriously impractical yet possessed with a strange, haunting beauty.

The stories do show their age in places. While Cordwainer Smith's stories do frequently feature female protagonists who are at least as well developed as his male characters and imbued with a fair amount of agency, from the pilot Helen America in 'The Lady Who Sailed The Soul' to the messianic D'joan and reluctant resistance leader Elaine in 'The Dead Lady Of Clown Town', they are presented as being exceptional to their gender. 'The Crime And The Glory Of Commander Suzdal' features a planet whose inhabitants are violent, all-male homosexuals. To be charitable to Smith, he portrays the people of this planet in sympathetic detail as they death of all the planet's female population by a virus, and one could argue the appearance of a single sex planet that reproduces parthenogenesically in a work of pulp SF paved the way for later, radical LGBT and feminist readings of the same idea, so that, say, when Nicola Griffith wrote the excellent 'Ammonite', it was ably accepted into the mileau of SF. However none of this makes up for the fact that this is a thoroughly offensive portrayal of homosexuality, especially as Smith outright states that their homosexuality was responsible for turning them villainous. The casual homophobia makes 'The Crime And The Glory...' the least palatable of Smith's stories on show here, and means that it is impossible to recommend the book without reservations.

This is a great shame, as many of the other stories have much to recommend them. In other places Smith's work shows signs of being quite open minded. The Lords and Ladies of Instrumentality tend to be equally as powerful as each other, and from their names one presumes of reasonably diverse backgrounds. The whole story arc of the Rediscovery Of Man is that humanity can only achieve transcendence after it treats the underpeople as actual people. Smith never portrays the underpeople as any less than fully human, and the stories that focus on their struggle for equal rights are the most moving in the book. 'The Dead Lady Of Clown Town' reworks the story of Joan of Arc as D'joan the dog girl leading a tragic and inevitably doomed non-revolution of the underpeople, and is genuinely heartbreaking. The story is recapitulated more hopefully in 'The Ballad Of Lost C'mell', and here Smith shows that he has a good understanding of systematic injustice:

"Perhaps the policewoman thought that raw hatred would be shocking to C'mell. It wasn't. Underpeople were used to hatred, and it was not any worse raw than it was when cooked with politeness and served like poison. They had to live with it."

Smith's work also shows a healthy cynicism about how Empires achieve and maintain power, informed one suspects by his day job. The Instrumentality are not meant to be nice or pleasant, and the reader is not meant to approve of them. They hold their power over humanity by brainwashing, drug monopolies and manipulation. 'Golden The Ship Was - Oh! Oh! Oh!' shows that the Instrumentality is wily, deceptive and manipulative, and is willing to go all the way to genocide to maintain its control over humanity, while 'Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons' shows just how jealously the Norstrilians guard the drug that grants longevity to humans. Perhaps the most powerful story in the book, and almost certainly the most strikingly odd, is 'A Planet Named Shayol'. Shayol is the hell planet that the Instrumentality uses as the ultimate punishment for criminals, and in a sequence that would make both Dante and David Cronenberg shudder Smith reveals just what that punishment is. The damned of the Instrumentality are exposed to parasites which cause extra organs to grow on their bodies whilst preserving their life for thousands of years in excruciating agony, and the Instrumentality harvests these extra organs for medical use. It is intense and nightmarish, yet oddly lyrical and moving in places. It demonstrates both Smith's understanding of and his contempt of the extreme punishments governments use to maintain their power. As such it displays all of Smith's strengths as a writer, and nicely summarises what made him unique.