The Thankfully Unpleasant Cordwainer Smith

I found myself reading Science-Fiction again for the first time in a long while. Almost every book I read last year was a theology book or a history book and it finally got to be a slog as I approached the end of Roberts’ History of The World. It was just too much fact, fact, fact. I thought it might be pleasant to take a break with some Sci-Fi.

Well, it wasn’t pleasant. And pleasant is probably not the best word for the Science-Fiction writer I turned to, Cordwainer Smith. It’s not the best word for any good Science-Fiction writer at all, I think. You know, I might have forgotten why I even liked Science-Fiction until today.

To my mind Science-Fiction is a raw, muscular form that pops in and out of it’s gristly joint as the narrative flexes and fluxes. There’s usually nothing pleasant about it. Weird is probably the best word to describe it. Weird. That’s a right solid word with a good turn in it – like the best Sci-Fi.

So now I’ve read three stories by Cordwainer Smith. The first I read years ago, his most famous story, his first published, Scanners Live In Vain. Back when it was published it had the best writers in the field presuming it was the famous Asimov writing under a pseudonym. But Cordwainer Smith is no Asimov – he’s better. The other two, read more recently, are from a 1979 collection, entitled Space Lords, purchased at the used book store, of course.

Here’s a taste of Cordwainer Smith, from the story Dead Lady of Clown Town:

“You can’t kill her. You can’t kill love. I love you soldier, love you. You can’t kill that. Remember–”

His last blow catches her in the face.

She falls back on the pavement. He thrusts his foot, as we can see by the tape, directly on her throat. He leaps forward in an odd little jig, bringing his full weight down on her fragile neck. He swings while stamping downward, and we then see his face full on in the camera.

It is the face of a weeping child, bewildered by hurt and shocked by the prospect of more to come.

He had started to do his duty, and his duty had gone wrong, all wrong.

Poor man. He must have been one of the first men in the new worlds who tried to use weapons against love. Love is a sour and powerful ingredient to meet in the excitement of battle.

Not pleasant at all. But I can’t wait to read the rest. At least that is pleasant.

7 responses to “The Thankfully Unpleasant Cordwainer Smith”

  1. Dead Lady of Clown Town is one of the greatest sf stories of all time.At least in my world.It brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. The ‘after-the-fact-documentary’ approach is stunning. The paintings, the opera, the snippets of film… the robot asking “You mean, I exist?” Astonishing.And a person could write a book on Christianity & sf based on that one story alone. He’s got Joan of Arc and Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Christ all together in that story. Apparently he wasn’t thinking of the civil rights movement when he wrote it – he was thinking about oppressed people in China.

  2. PS: I can lend you my copy of his complete stories, if your collection is missing some.

  3. Thanks for the context, Elliot. I had assumed it was about the civil rights movement.And lend me what now? Increase my borrower’s guilt? Get thee behind me, sf-fan!Seriously, though, I actually am curious about the evolution of the instrumentality universe. I might want to borrow The Rediscovery of Man just for the introductions.It’s a good thing you don’t charge late fees.

  4. Whoa. That was from a SF story? Does it have a lot gadgetry and intergalatic robot alien stuff? I don’t mind some (I think) but if there’s a whole page explaining some anti-gravity device and another for the space time continuum I’d have to work up to it.

  5. Smith is a lot more about societies and personalities than about technology. He’s much more poetic than, say, Asimov or Clarke.

  6. I am embarrassed to say that I have never read this author. However, I think you may have convinced me to engage his work.

  7. Don’t be embarrassed, Kevin, no one reads Cordwainer Smith. If you would like to know more about the intersection of Christianity and Science-fiction you should check out the blog Claw of the Conciliator.And welcome to Upper Fort Stewart.

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