The intricate world of Cordwainer Smith

In this second of some personal pieces presenting, for a general audience, science fiction literature, Ross Hetherington sails through the unique future history of Cordwainer Smith.

Ross Hetherington

What does the future hold for human beings? No one could know, of course. But those who watch carefully, despite all their fears and hopes; they might suggest to us we can expect no end of stories, no matter how much we, right now, might yearn for an end to the marshalled, poignant fates that make for them, and crave order, safety and dullness. And if instead we do yearn for stories, these same observant souls may tell us that of the story’s nemeses too – aimless lives, whether pleasured, pained, or both – we can expect no end of variations and reconfigurations. Unless, against these predictions, history itself is a story. Three threads, then, woven by Cordwainer Smith. There will be no end to the ways human beings will make their lives pointless. There will be no end to the stories that human beings will live and retell, and in doing so live again. There will be an end to stories and their lack, which will make sense of them both.

Cordwainer Smith died in 1966 at the age of 55. He had published thirty stories in the genre, and one novel. It was only a few years previously that the science fiction community had discovered who he was. Dr. Paul Linebarger: an American raised in China, Japan, Germany, and France, and fluent in all their languages. A military advisor, who, lacking illusions about humanity, could write the textbook on psychological warfare. A committed Christian, who viewed all life as sacred, self-sacrifice as the supreme virtue, and humankind as having a special destiny. Reading his work long after such revelations, we now can see at least something of where those stories – in many ways, utterly unique – came from. What could be made of them at the time I do not know.

Every one of Smith’s stories takes place within a single, projected future history spanning 14,000 years from the present (a history which has only ever been incompletely reconstructed – Linebarger lost his one notebook to a sailing trip). In them, after global collapse near to our present time, there is founded a single governing power – The Instrumentality of Mankind. Though the Instrumentality is willing to use any means at its disposal to preserve humanity, its dictatorship is neither that of abstract utilitarian computation, nor of pure bureaucracy. The Lords of the Instrumentality, when we meet them, are human, whatever methuselan age they have lived to, or whatever skills and technologies they employ. And, however vast and rigid the hierarchy sits under them, they retain their individuality and autonomy. Ultimately, that they will serve humanity above all other concerns is a matter of trust in the subtle wisdom of the system they serve.

Smith’s stories might be put under three main groups. Slowly, under the Instrumentality’s rule, humans torturously reclaim the stars. Literally torturously, for in the lion’s share of the early Smith stories, travel in space without precautions means inexplicable madness and death. As humanity spreads out, so they adapt to new worlds. Some of these adaptations go awry. Hence, a common theme in Smith’s work is human beings being turned, or turning themselves, into something less than human. On Earth, and in the worlds held firmly by the Instrumentality, humanity is led slowly towards Utopia – free of sickness, sadness, and unexpected death. They are served by the animals of Earth, who are shaped by the Instrumentality to have human shapes and intelligence, but keep their animal characters (and genetic code): The Underpeople. Eon’s long reflection by different individual Lords of the Instrumentality on the deceptively dehumanising happiness of humanity, in contrast to the ironically vibrant humanity shown by the Underpeople, leads to the pivotal event in Smith’s future history – the reconstruction of the trappings and dangers of pre-apocalyptic society known as The Rediscovery of Man. The unfolding of the history of the animal life of Earth – human and non-human – backdrops the most moving and complex of Smith’s stories.

Before I continue, something must be said about Smith’s style, to bring out how this all could possibly work. I don’t think Smith is quite the perfect writer that some sci-fi fans make him out to be. But he is very good, and more importantly, he is most likely unique. Nothing too stylistically incredible or baroque. You never get the impression that Smith is pushing himself to create something utterly new. But, nevertheless, he did. Many biographies draw attention to the influence on his work of the structure of classic Chinese narrative. Others note the character’s names – often puns or phrases from other languages. The neologisms and place-names are strikingly realistic and lyrical. You get the impression that this universe he created slowly grew out of his life and imagination. Nor were there any precedents to half his ideas. Sci-fi fans such as I can all guess what modern stories set out to be written about a millennia-spanning aristocracy with access to a near-immortality inducing drug, or about animals being turned into people-shapes, would be like (and how bad they would probably be).

Instead, Smith’s stories form a messy, hence realistic, organic whole. The obvious archetypes they include, when they do include them at all, are pulp science fiction archetypes, or those of 50s America, and these gasp for air and are transformed themselves amongst strange saints, farmers and lords. And even these characters take on a new resonance when placed within the full corpus. The significance of Smith’s creative achievement can only really be grasped through reading lots of the stories. Many of them are styled explicitly as future myths and legends. This allows Smith to escape the curse of excessive realism which can often weigh down imaginative writing in an aesthetic alien to its depictions. Having said this, when Smith writes his narrative from a realistic perspective, the grasp on psychology is obvious. As he alternates between these two and other modes, and as the stories successively refer to each other’s events, you begin to get a sense of something more than a mere mythology. Here we have a sacred history, rendered all the more profound by its focus on the individual lives that move its grand events and notable occurrences.

But why should we be interested in such an imagining? The Christian influence on the great arc of Smith’s history is obvious in several of the stories, though the Bible itself makes no appearance after Planet Earth’s initial conflagration – you may not want to read something like that. Especially when I inform you that one of the stories is, regrettably, undoubtedly homophobic. In response, at the outset, I noted Smith’s full grasp of just what human beings may be capable of doing to themselves and each other – given Linebarger’s occupations during his life, this kind of pessimism is hardly surprising. But to combine such pessimism about human beings, with nevertheless a profound reverence for all life: that’s a rare thing to find portrayed so honestly, in all its tensions. I find myself able to overcome the disparities between this man’s outlook and my own (I can assure you, the few unpalatable parts of Smith’s writings are nothing compared to the vulgarities of many of his contemporaries). The focus on individual lives, and unforeseeable events, in the midst of the incredible and often disturbing worlds and systems displayed, remind me of the stories from our own world, which themselves stand against its chaotic drudgery and horror. Perhaps we might be better able to face whatever real future history has in store for us, knowing that humankind, though stranger and stranger, was always strange, has always had its stories and myths, and all yet perhaps all part of some great, indiscernable saga.