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Cordwainer Smith

Cordwainer Smith is the pen name of Paul Linebarger, an East Asia scholar, expert on psychological warfare for the US army, and later a government adviser on foreign policy. Born to a lawyer and political activist with close ties to the Chinese revolution of 1911, his godfather was Sun Yat-Sen and he lived in various countries such as China, France, and Germany. He received a PhD in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University at the age of 23 and became an expert on Far Eastern affairs. He then served with the US Army in the Office of War Information, established their psychological warfare section, and literally “wrote the book” on the subject. In 1943 he was sent to China to coordinate military intelligence operations, after which he became a close confidant of Chiang Kai-shek. He kept his real identity secret when publishing his science fiction stories in the pulp magazines. He avoided direct contact with the SF community despite his stories gaining many admirers. Sadly, just as he was starting to be more amenable to reaching out, he suffered a heart attack and passed away at the early age of 53. Since then, his stories have gained a reputation for their unique, whimsical, and mythical approach to a grand future history.

Norstrilia: The only novel set in the “Instrumentality of Mankind” universe

Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith

I’ve always wanted to read the work of Cordwainer Smith (pen name of Paul Linebarger, a scholar and diplomat who was an expert on East Asia and psychological warfare), who also moonlighted as a quirky SF author who wrote a number of short stories mainly in the 1950s and 60s set in the Instrumentality of Mankind, a full-fledged galaxy-spanning far-future universe.

Smith has something of a cult following, but really only has a few books to his credit: the collected short stories that can be found in The Instrumentality of Mankind (1974), The Best of Cordwainer Smith (1975), and The Rediscovery of Man (1993). He wrote only one novel, Norstrilia (1975), which was initially split into two novellas titled The Planet Buyer (1964) and The Underpeople... Read More

The Rediscovery of Man: The strangest future mythology you’ll ever read

The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

The universe that Cordwainer Smith created has captured the imagination of many SF fans and authors thanks to the short stories that have been collected in The Instrumentality of Mankind (1974), The Best of Cordwainer Smith (1975), and The Rediscovery of Man (1993). It is without doubt one of the strangest and most memorable creations in SF, even if it only affords short, tantalizing glimpses of a much greater tapestry that the author was never able to fully reveal due to his untimely death at age 53.

The most famous of those stories are included in the Gollancz edition:

Scanners Live in Vain (1950)
The Lady Who Sailed the Soul (1960)
The Game of Rat and Dragon (1955)
The Burning of the Brain (1958)
Golden the Ship Was — Oh! Oh! Oh! (1959)
The ... Read More

The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories: Humane science fiction

The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories edited by Tom Shippey

I read Tom Shippey's other excellent collection, The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories some time ago, so it was only a matter of time before I sought out this one. Like its stablemate, The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories consists of a chronological collection of stories from a variety of authors with an introduction by the editor. I was struck by the idea of "fabril" literature, which is discussed in the introduction: a form of literature in which the "smith" is central. Certainly, a great deal of early science fiction in particular involves a clever engineer solving some sort of problem, and I'm sure many careers in engineering and the sciences have been launched in this way. I'd say that there is some tendency, though, as the genre matures, for technology to become the problem and human factors the solutio... Read More