The (re)discovery of Cordwainer Smith, the shaper of myths

Gautham Shenoy September 29, 2018 9 min

Take a trip 40,000 years into the future to the weird and wonderful universe of Cordwainer Smith.

A universe where giant planoforming ships ply the spacelanes. Where men ‘built’ from animals labor for mankind—and plot in secret.

Where living weapons guard the most important secret—the secret of immortality.
A universe ruled by an omnipotent elite known to men as the Lords of the Instrumentality.

It was 15 years ago, while rifling through the shelves of a second-hand bookstore – on 16/10/2003 to be exact – that I stumbled upon a much-read copy of a book called Space Lords by an author called Cordwainer Smith, with the description above jumping up at me in big bold letters from the back cover. It was to be one of the best discoveries of my reading life. By the time I finished the four short stories contained in that book, I was a Cordwainer Smith fan for life. My favourite being The Ballad of Lost C’mell, with its fantastic opening line, ‘She was a girly girl and they were true men, lords of creation, but she pitted her wits against them and she won.’

I wanted to dive further into the world of the far future that Cordwainer Smith had created – because each story had only revealed a part of a much larger whole, each self-contained but with enough hints of greater wonders that lay in store in Smith’s ‘weird and wonderful universe’. The search for more of his books, however, proved futile, until one day almost a year later and just as serendipitously, I stumbled upon a Gollancz SF Masterworks copy of The Rediscovery of Man, a collection of some of Cordwainer Smith’s best short stories. It contained all the ones I’d earlier in Space Lords, plus Smith’s first – and perhaps his most celebrated – short story, Scanners Live In Vain.

Scanners Live In Vain first appeared in 1950 in an obscure publication called Fantasy Book, a magazine now only remembered for publishing this story. A quintessential Cordwainer Smith story, Scanners Live In Vain would’ve been forgotten if not for the fact that another contributor to this particular issue was the SF writer and editor, Frederick Pohl who – impressed by the originality of this new writer and struck by the story’s imagery – decided to re-publish it in 1952 in an anthology he was editing, which took the story to a wider audience, and needless to say, was an instant hit. Readers were intrigued, wanting to know more about the world of this cult of space-faring supervisors, the titular Scanners who cut off all sensory input to the brain, dehumanizing themselves in order to survive the ‘great pain of space’ involved in interstellar travel.

Given the vivid imagination and the powerful imagery of the story, many theorised that Cordwainer Smith was a pseudonym for an already-established science fiction author. People waited for more Cordwainer Smith tales that would reveal more about the Lords of the Instrumentality that even the Scanners bowed down to. But these tales were few and far between. Each new Cordwainer Smith story was well received, and each one made readers more impatient for the next one.

And then, 16 years after Cordwainer Smith’s first story appeared, an East Asia scholar and psychological warfare expert died in August 1966. Four months later, Frederick Pohl wrote an editorial in the magazine, Galaxy Science Fiction, and the world finally knew who Cordwainer Smith really was.

The editorial by Frederick Pohl in Galaxy Science Fiction that finally revealed science fiction’s ‘most closely guarded secret’

In 1913, Paul M.W. Linebarger – the political and legal advisor to Sun Yat-Sen, the founding father of the Republic of China – sent his pregnant wife Lillian from their home in the Philippines to Milwaukee to deliver, just so their child could be a natural-born American citizen, and thus eligible to be US President. On their return, the child, Paul M.A. Linebarger was duly named Lin Bah Loh, meaning Forest of Incandescent Bliss by his godfather, Sun Yat-Sen. With the family moving across Asia, Europe and the United States, Linebarger never had a settled childhood but learnt from every place that he lived in. By the time he was an adult, he spoke six languages and received his doctorate in political science at twenty-three. A professor at Duke highly regarded for his work on East Asia, when World War 2 began, Linebarger joined the US Army, where he helped set up its first psychological warfare section. He was soon sent to China to coordinate intelligence operations, where he would become a close confidant of Chiang Kai-Shek. After the war – and having risen to the rank of Major – Linebarger would return to academia, as a professor of Asiatic Studies and write Psychological Warfare, a book still considered an authoritative text on this subject.

It was around this time that Paul M.V. Linebarger would decide to become Cordwainer Smith. ‘Cordwainer’ being an archaic word for ‘a shoemaker who makes shoes in cordwain leather’ and ‘smith’, a skilled metalworker.

Cordwainer Smith had a fondness for cats, and featured them in many of his stories. (Image via Hoover Institution Archives)

Beginning with Scanners Live In Vain, Cordwainer Smith would tell stories set in the far future of humanity, spanning 14,000 years (not 40,000 as the blurb of Space Lords claimed) with the known universe ruled by the Instrumentality of Mankind. The Instrumentality – which begins as a police force on post-apocalyptic Earth – soon attains complete power and after the expansion of humans in space, assumes guardianship of the entire human race with strict rules. The Lords – and Ladies – of the Instrumentality being all-powerful, always keeping an eye on people across planets. The Instrumentality does not see itself as mere governors, but the instrument of human destiny itself. It is for a reason that Cordwainer Smith did not call it an ‘empire’ or a ‘republic’.

Human lifespans have been extended manifold thanks to the santaclara drug or Stroom, harvested from the fungus that infects diseased sheep in Old North Australia or simply Nostrilia, the most heavily garden planet since it is the only source in the universe for the precious immortality drug. The Underpeople – various animal species engineered to look human in appearance and with intelligence – created to serve humankind do all the work, and are treated as property. The personnel of interstellar ships are the completely dehumanized Habermans, convicts with all their sensory inputs – except from the eyes – surgically severed so that they can withstand the ‘pain of space’ while the passengers are stored in cold sleep. There is a dedicated prison planet where convicts are sent to have their organs harvested, re-grown and harvested again. The Instrumentality travels via planoforming craft where the human pilots are telepathically linked to cats to defend against the mysterious aliens that inhabit space, which they fight against using ‘pinlighting’, the detonation of ultra-vivid miniature photonuclear bombs, that need very quick reflexes to be fired, hence cats. And all of this is just the background, the set-up for the real stories to come.

Because in Cordwainer Smith’s universe, all this technology and free labour by the servile underpeople and not least, the near immortality, has made life a lot less desperate, but also a lot less meaningful. This ‘utopia’ is a bland one, with no real human experiences left anymore in a life of numb detachment. The spark of vitality has been lost and history has come to a stop. And so it is – against the background of all the things, good, bad and painful, that makes us human gone – that Cordwainer Smith sets out on the rediscovery of man with stories that explore his pervasive themes of freedom, loss, love, hope, equality, morality, spirituality, and culture, in simple prose that is almost poetic (Linebarger was a poet too). Infused with his deep knowledge of Asian culture and folklore, especially Chinese, that is reflected in his narrative structures, and tinged with his experiences during the war and his expertise in psychology, Cordwainer Smith’s stories are not your typical ‘golden age science fiction’ stories.

Vivid in their imagination, packed with action and deep reflection, grand in scope, always wondrously inventive and thrilling with etched-out characters, Cordwainer Smith remains one of the foremost mythmakers in science fiction. Even if you are a long-time science fiction reader, you will find Cordwainer Smith’s stories to be fresh, original and occasionally funny even if you read them today. I can only then imagine the impact it would have had on his readers decades ago, and understand their impatience for the next Cordwainer Smith story.

Little wonder that Cordwainer Smith was highly regarded by his peers and loved by his readers, leaving a lasting legacy that has influenced countless writers down the years, and drawn nothing but praise from fellow practitioners. A fact that is striking given that Smith’s entire science fiction output was just about 30 short stories and one novel.

Ursula K Le Guin said of him that, ‘Cordwainer Smith’s stories were an amazement to me when I first read them. Forty years later, they still are…exuberant language, brilliant invention and hallucinatory imagery’. Terry Pratchett said that Cordwainer Smith is timeless. Stephen Baxter calls Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality ‘the most complex and lyrical of all future histories. Lush, strange, unique, a treasure’. In the most recent instance, the author of the United States of Japan, Peter Tieryas, wrote about how Cordwainer Smith’s work influenced his latest novel, Mecha Samurai Empire. Therein lies a big irony. That such a great, influential writer is so criminally under-read and almost forgotten. If you’re a Cordwainer Smith fan, you know what I’m talking about. If you have never read Cordwainer Smith, I envy you, because you will get to read his stories for the first time. Better late than never they say, and I agree.

If you’re looking for a good book to start with on Cordwainer Smith, look for the now-easily-available and affordable SF Masterworks edition of The Rediscovery of Man that collects 12 of the finest, most enjoyable Cordwainer Smith short stories (each with a short introduction to its background) and also includes a timeline of the future history of the Instrumentality of Mankind and a great introduction, ‘Cordwainer Smith – The Shaper of Myths’ by SF editor, critic and historian, John J. Pierce. Let the (re)discovery of Cordwainer Smith begin!


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