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In a far-flung future, planoforming ships knit together a galaxy ruled from Earth by the ruthless benevolence of the mysterious Lords of the Instrumentality, who presided over a utopia without death, danger—or freedom. The Underpeople, humanlike beings created from animals to do the work of utopia, had no rights, and could be disposed of at the whim of a human. But they had become more humanlike than their creators, and their leader, the cat woman C’Mell, had a plan for gaining their freedom—which made her much ...
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In a far-flung future, planoforming ships knit together a galaxy ruled from Earth by the ruthless benevolence of the mysterious Lords of the Instrumentality, who presided over a utopia without death, danger—or freedom. The Underpeople, humanlike beings created from animals to do the work of utopia, had no rights, and could be disposed of at the whim of a human. But they had become more humanlike than their creators, and their leader, the cat woman C’Mell, had a plan for gaining their freedom—which made her much too dangerous a person to be permitted to live. Elsewhere in the galaxy, the planet Norstrilia had power of its own, for it was the only source of stroon, the drug which arrested aging and made humans immortal. Its inhabitants were wealthy beyond comprehension, and one of them, a boy named Rod McBan, with the help of his computer, had manipulated the galactic economy until he completely owned the planet Earth—which made him much too dangerous a person to be permitted to live. But when Rod came to Earth and joined forces with C’Mell and the Underpeople, the petrified utopia of the Instrumentality began to crack and fall apart as freedom was reborn in the galaxy. . . .
The publisher of Fantasy Book was William L. Crawford, an old-time science-fiction enthusiast whose s-f publishing career went back to the early 1930s, when he brought out two little magazines called Marvel Tales and Unusual Stories, setting the type for them himself. No more than a thousand copies of each issue were printed, though they ran outstanding stories by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Clifford D. Simak, and Robert E. Howard. Fantasy Book, which had a wobbly eight-issue existence between 1947 and 1951, was as amateurish-looking as its Crawford predecessors-no two issues had quite the same format, and even within a single issue several typefaces usually were employed-but it, too, managed to run some valuable fiction, by A.E. van Vogt, Andre Norton, L. Ron Hubbard, Isaac Asimov in collaboration with Frederik Pohl, and Murray Leinster. But the one storythat ensures this scruffy magazine's immortality in the history of science fiction was the third item in its (undated) sixth issue, released in January of 1950: "Scanners Live in Vain" by an unknown writer with the strange name of Cordwainer Smith.
How that story came into the hands of Bill Crawford of Fantasy Book is something I can't tell you. John J. Pierce, a pioneer in the arcane field of Cordwainer Smith studies reported in a piece first published in 1993 that "Smith" wrote the story in 1945 and submitted it to the pre-eminent science-fiction editor of the day, John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction, who rejected it as "too extreme." In those days stories rejected by Campbell had few other possibilities for publication-the only markets were two fairly juvenile pulp magazines called Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, which had the same editor, and a third and even more juvenile pulp called Planet Stories. The remaining two magazines, Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, were entirely staff-written and did not welcome unsolicited submissions.
So once a story had been to Campbell and to the editors of the Startling-Thrilling Wonder duo and Planet, there was essentially no place to publish it except some amateur magazine, and "Smith," who must have been a devoted science-fiction reader, somehow discovered Fantasy Book and sent his story to Bill Crawford. And that was how my teenage self happened to read, in the spring of 1950, a story that began with this startling, jarring passage: "Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stamped across the room by judgment, not by sight. When he saw the table bit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Luci's face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg was broken. It was not. Scanner to the core, he had to scan himself. The action was reflex: and automatic. The inventory included his legs, abdomen, Chestbox of instruments, hands, arms, face and back with the Mirror. Only then did Martel go back to being angry. He talked with his voice, even though he knew that his wife hated its blare and preferred to have him write.
"'I tell you, I must cranch. I have to cranch. It's my worry, isn't it?'"
Nobody-with the possible exception of A.E. van Vogt, whose dreamlike, surreal The World of Null-A was first published around the time Cordwainer Smith was writing "Scanners"-wrote science fiction that sounded like that. The lucid, unadorned prose setting forth the immeasurably strange-it was a new kind of voice.
I read on and on. One bizarre term after another tumbled forth: Scanners, the Up-and-Out, the habermans, the Cranching Wire. In time, it all made sense. By the end of the story, forty pages later, I knew that some incomparable master of science fiction had taken me to an invented world like none that had ever been portrayed before.
But who was this Cordwainer Smith?
Suddenly, everybody in the little inner world of science fiction-there couldn't have been more than a few hundred who really cared about it in any more than a casual way-was asking that question. But no answers came forth. William Crawford let it be known that the name was a pseudonym-but for whom? Van Vogt? Hardly. If he had written it, he would have been proud to publish it under his own name. The prolific Henry Kuttner, famous for his innumerable pseudonyms? Heinlein? Sturgeon? None of the theories seemed to add up. The name itself provided no clue. ("Cordwainer" is an archaic term meaning "leather-worker" or "shoemaker.")
The hubbub died down within a few months, and the unknown Mr. Smith and his remarkable story receded into obscurity and might have remained there forever but for Frederik Pohl, not only a writer but an editor of s-f anthologies. Pohl knew about "Scanners" because he had had a story in that same issue of Fantasy Book, and he republished it in 1952 in a paperback called Beyond the End of Time, a fine fat collection that also included work by Bradbury, Asimov, van Vogt, and Heinlein. Science-fiction paperbacks were few and far between back then, and everybody who liked s-f pounced on the Pohl anthology. Thousands of readers who had never so much as heard of Fantasy Book now discovered Cordwainer Smith and clamored for more of his work.
They would have to wait a few years. Nothing more was heard of the mysterious Cordwainer Smith until the autumn of 1955, when Galaxy Science Fiction, one of the leading s-f magazines of the day, offered the second Smith story: the eccentric, powerful little tale, "The Game of Rat and Dragon." Very likely Fred Pohl had some involvement in this, too, for he was a close friend of Horace Gold, Galaxy's editor, and probably facilitated contact between the writer and Smith.
And then, beginning in 1957, a torrent of Cordwainer Smith stones came forth, each of them told in the same startlingly individual way as the first two, and-as gradually became apparent-each set in the same astonishingly original future Universe. There was one in 1957, two in 1958, four in 1959, one in 1960, and, between 1961 and 1965, sixteen more, most of them meaty novellas. They appeared in a wide range of science-fiction magazines, from the most minor (the short-lived Saturn) to the top of the line (Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction). Pohl, who had replaced Horace Gold as editor of Galaxy in 1961, published most of the major ones, such instantly hailed masterpieces as "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell," "Think Blue, Count Two," and "The Dead Lady of Clown Town." It was obvious by now to everyone involved with science fiction that a major writer was at work in our midst.
A little information about him was beginning to leak out, too. Some time in 1963 word emerged that "Smith" was a pseudonym for one Paul Linebarger, who lived in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., and had some sort of involvement with the national military or espionage establishment. When the World Science Fiction Convention was held in Washington that year, Linebarger was not among those present, but Fred Pohl arranged for a small group of writers-I was not among them, alas-to visit him at his house. It was the only time, I believe, that he had any personal contact with the world of professional science-fiction publishing.
The extent to which the details of Paul Linebarger's life remained unknown even after that can be seen from the review I wrote in 1964 of the first Cordwainer Smith novel, The Planet Buyer (which was actually a section of the larger work later published as Norstrilia):
"Rumor has it that the author of the stories appearing under the byline of 'Cordwainer Smith' is a military man who has spent much of his life in the Orient and who now holds a high position in the Pentagon. However, I have a theory of my own.
"I think that Cordwainer Smith is a visitor from some remote period of the future, living among us perhaps as an exile from his own era or perhaps just as a tourist, and amusing himself by casting some of his knowledge of historical events into the form of science fiction. ...
"The evidence is partly stylistic. Cordwainer Smith writes a strange, eerie prose, which though grammatical does not appear to be ordinary in any manner. Astonishingly flat declarative statements alternate with wildly soaring prose; syntax is odd and often distorted; in every way, there seems to be an alien mind putting the words together.
"The structure of the stories, too, is unconventional. Most science fiction writers go to some length to explain what is happening in their stories, and what the background details mean. Smith does a little of this, but only enough to make his work intelligible. The rest he takes for granted, as though it is so tiresomely familiar to him that he does not see the need to spell out the details.
"The most revealing thing, though, is the fact that every Cordwainer Smith story fits into a common framework-from the first one, published in 1950, on. Aside from this novel, there are about a dozen longish novelettes and a good many short stories in the Smith oeuvre so far, and this entire voluminous output hangs together. Smith hops across a span of perhaps fifteen thousand years, zigzagging to tell in detail a story that he has encapsulated in a sentence or two of an earlier story, but his work is always consistent. One can examine his first story or his second, or his third, and see the seeds of the tenth or twentieth. Nor is any story really complete in itself; it refers back and forth to the others, each a segment out of a vast and bewildering whole.
"It is frightening and a little implausible to think that Cordwainer Smith, circa 1948, was able to visualize an imaginary universe with such detail that he could spend the next decade and a half inventing internally consistent and externally consistent stories about it. I prefer to believe that Smith is merely making use of historical or mythical material that he learned from childhood on-spinning out for us the equivalents of the Illiad or the courtship of Miles Standish.
"The book at hand, which appeared in shorter form last year in Galaxy, is typical of his output. Maddeningly oblique, stunningly evocative, it teases and taunts, giving us an incomplete story with little hint of the real nature of the events. Though it defies coherent summary, it fascinates and compels. Rod McBan, a Parsifal-like innocent from the planet known as Old North Australia, where every man is a millionaire, escapes execution as a mental defective through some maneuver not readily intelligible to the reader. Then a computer induces him to execute a coup in futures of stroon, the immortality drug that is the source of Old North Australia's wealth, and he ends up so rich that he buys the planet Earth, again for uncertain motivations. He comes to Earth and is spirited away by the cat girl C'mell, one of Smith's most enchanting creations. Here the book ends, with a clear promise of more to come.
"The man is not just a science-fiction writer. He is a wanderer out of the future, I have no doubt. It scares me to contemplate his work or his presence among us."
I was not, of course, serious about my notion in that book review of four decades ago that Smith was a time-traveler masquerading as a science-fiction writer. The bit of legitimate biographical information I provided about him was accurate enough, but very much on the sketchy side, as we discovered in 1966 when news came of the author's death.
He was only 53, and had packed several lifetimes worth of experience into that short span. At last it was revealed that Paul M.A. Linebarger, born in Milwaukee in 1913, was the son of an American judge who had helped to finance the Chinese revolution of 1911 and was the legal advisor to its leader, Sun Yat-sen. The younger Linebarger had grown up in China, Japan, Germany, and France, and by the age of 21 had earned a doctorate in political science at Johns Hopkins University. (Some of the strangeness of his fictional technique, apparently, was derived from his knowledge of the Chinese language and classical Chinese methods of storytelling.) Between 1930 and 1936 he had been a legal consultant to the Chinese government under Chiang Kai-shek, and during World War II, still based in China, he served as a lieutenant colonel in U.S. Army Intelligence. (This was the Pentagon connection about which we had heard.) After the war he became a professor of Asian politics at Johns Hopkins, but also found time to serve as an advisor to the British forces in Malaya and to the U.S. Eighth Army in Korea, and to write a definitive textbook on psychological warfare, severaal espionage thrillers, and the science-fiction works for which he will always be remembered by connoisseurs of the field.
Researchers have discovered that Linebarger had been writing science fiction from boyhood on, his first known story, "War No.81-Q," appeared in his high-school magazine in 1928, when he was fifteen. Evidently he went on writing fantasy and science fiction stories in great abundance throughout the 1930s and 1940s, though none of them has ever been published and they can be presumed to be lost-and then, in 1945, came "Scanners Live in Vain," which would so spectacularly launch his career as a writer five years later.
A brilliant man, an extraordinary writer, Death took him much too soon, just as he was reaching his creative peak, and we will never know what glories of the imagination he would have given us if he had been granted another fifteen or twenty years. But at least we have the thirty or so science-fiction stories and the one novel that he did manage to produce in his short, busy life.
I was instrumental in arranging for the publication of the very first Cordwainer Smith short-story collection in 1963, a book to which the publisher gave the title You Will Never Be the Same. It is as apt a description of the effect Cordwainer Smith's fiction has on its readers as has ever been coined. -Robert Silverberg July 2002
Excerpted from We the Underpeople by Cordwainer Smith Copyright © 2002 by Agberg, Ltd. . Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 22, 2013
Cordwainer Smith was one of the giants in the field. No one else can even touch him for alien anthropology, xenology, and just plain fun!