Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book: Cordwainer Smith - The Rediscovery of Man (1999)

In 1950, an unknown author under the pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith published a short story in an obscure magazine that was hardly read. The magazine disappeared, but the story remained and slowly gained prestige and admiration in the word of science fiction. But nobody knew who Cordwainer Smith actually was. Over de next few decades, the mysterious Smith published another two score short stories of remarkable genius and readers discovered that all these stories were somehow linked and formed an immense arc of future history. But who was this Cordwainer Smith? It turned out to be a man named Paul Linebarger, an expert in psychological warfare and godson of Chinese prime minister Sun Yat-Sen. His best stories are now bundled as The Rediscovery of Man.

The “rediscovery of man” has a double meaning for me. The starfarers in Smith’s tales are tragic, human figures (even if they are not always, technically, human) and are given a mythical feel in later stories that refer back to earlier ones. Smith asks himself what it means to be human, and what it means to love and feel, in strange future times. He does so far more profoundly than most writers, whose idealized characters are too often found on space ships. So, while Smith’s universe is one of the most unique, strange and beautiful, it is also one of the most real, because he combines it with real people. He rediscovered man in science fiction.

After reading a few of his stories, I got the impression that Smith was narrating them to me from a distant future as legends of the past. I am reading singular moments in history, only it just happens that this history is my future. The eternal stories of the Lady Who Sailed The Soul and the Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal should have been in my history books and I should have seen countless adaptations in film, but I live in the wrong age. This is not the age of the Instrumentality of Mankind. Reading Cordwainer Smith feels like gaining a cultural background in the shape of striking stories from a genius imagination. See what science fiction is capable of.


  1. What a pleasure to read your comments on my father's stories. I too feel like he is commenting from a distant future.

    Regarding your comment about "should have seen countless adaptations in film," there have occasionally been nibbles of interest but nothing has come of them.

    Interestingly, his stories have been translated into many languages and I get the feeling that he continues to be read in Europe.

    Rosana Hart, his daughter

  2. Thank you very much for your kind comment, Rosana. I would love to see film adaptations of Smith's stories, although I think I would not be able to stand "A Planet Named Shayol" on screen.


  3. Scanners Live in Vain is one Cordwainer Smith story that I read when I was, maybe, 13-14 y.o. It struck me deeply. Until now i still go back and read the story. I would hate to have someone make this story into a movie and remove all the nuances that made this story a really thought provoking experience.

  4. Which is why they should keep all of the nuances in! Now more than ever we have the tools to do amazing things with computer graphics. They will eventually get tired of making movies out of the same tired stories over and over and find jewels like Cordwainer Smith's stories. Hopefully in our lifetime!