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 Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal (1964)
The Dead Lady of Clown Town (1964)
Under Old Earth (1966)
Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons (1961)
Alpha Ralpha Boulevard (1961)
The Ballad of Lost C’mell (1962)
A Planet Named Shayol (1961)
Just by the titles you can get a sense of his unique and playful mind, and the stories themselves can be strange, haunting, humorous, and lyrical by turn. It’s fair to say that his voice was unique. Every story stands alone but adds a thread to the tapestry of his Instrumentality of Mankind universe. The stories are told like far-future fables or legends, and really defy easy description.
“Scanners Live in Vain,” which is about a rebellion by a guild of cyborg-like scanners that help pilot ships through “The Great Pain of Space,” is probably one of the strangest and most disturbing SF short stories I have ever read. Strange concepts like habermen, cranching, and the fraternity of scanners are thrown at the reader immediately, so you have to be prepared to take it in. It is the best story in the collection, and some consider it the best SF short story ever written.
“The Lady Who Sailed the Soul” is an epic love story of two star-crossed lovers who go to great lengths through time and space to be reunited. The linkage between pilot and sailing ship to navigate the stars is quite painful and awkward, and perhaps was inspired by the author’s continual health troubles in real life.
“The Game of Rat and Dragon,” about pin-lighters and their partners who help protect interstellar spaceships that travel via planoforming, is one of the most bizarre, original, amusing, and touching stories I’ve read. I can’t reveal any more details without ruining the surprise, but this is also one of my favorites.
“The Burning of the Brain” features a famous Go-Captain (a pilot who directs his ship to planoform from one part of space to another) and his formerly beautiful wife, who has become mentally disturbed. To save his ship and passengers, he must make a terrible choice. Smith goes back to this theme frequently in his stories.
“Golden the Ship Was — Oh! Oh! Oh!” is another strange story about how the Lords of the Instrumentality take unusual and underhanded tactics to combat an upstart rival threatening Earth. Besides the strange title, it also features the best character names ever, Prince Lovaduck (there is an explanation of course).
“The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal” tells the tragic tale of a brave and well-meaning space captain who comes to the aid of a rescue call from the planet Arachosia, which turns out to be a trap designed to lure humans into the clutches of a bizarre all-male society. He uses time travel and feline genetic material (what???) to orchestrate his escape, but is still punished by the Instrumentality for his mistake.
“The Dead Lady of Clown Town” is a very powerful tale of martyrdom by a Christ-like dog-girl (one of the underpeople) named D’Joan (the name is not accidental), a human therapist named Elaine, an electronic copy of the long-dead Lady Panc Ashash, and a telepath named The Hunter who start a revolution to uphold the rights of underpeople, genetically-modified animals who are essentially slaves that serve real humans. The religious overtones are quite overt, but the story is very good.
“Under Old Earth” is perhaps the most bizarre story of the bunch, telling the story of Lord Sto Odin, the most venerable Lord of the Instrumentality, who is now dying and ventures to an unregulated region of Old Earth called the Gebeit to see a cure for the “tired, sterile happiness” of humanity. He encounters a wild and suicidal young man below the surface who has stolen some “congohelium” (matter + anti-matter) and is under the thrall of a continuous, loud, pounding music that he must dance to, while all the other young people have collapsed in exhaustion. To some readers, this story might appear to be Cordwainer Smith’s response to the frightening hippie and youth movement of the 1960’s.
“Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons” is a story about Norstrilia, the planet that has a monopoly on the immortality drug stroon, which itself can only be harvested from giant sheep infected with a certain virus. Due to the incredible wealth of this planet, every criminal and government covets the stroon and Norstrilia has developed a drastic means of repelling all attempts to take it by force. The title refers cryptically to this, so I wouldn’t dare spoil it for you.
“Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is set later in the history of the Instrumentality, when the tired utopia is starting to crack and the Rediscovery of Man is taking place, where the Instrumentality deliberately allows danger, uncertainty, mortality, and all the illogical and messy old cultural practices of man to be reintroduced to reinvigorate humanity. The story is about some of those first people who encounter this new and dangerous world.
“The Ballad of Lost C’mell” is about one of the most famous underpeople, a feline femme fatale named C’mell whose job is a “girly girl,” an escort and geisha-type entertainer of humans who visit Old Earth. The plot is fairly convoluted for a short story, and is somewhat hard to follow, but basically involves a plot by Lord Jestocost, a Lord of the Instrumentality, and the E’telekeli, a powerful telepathic underperson that is unknown to the Instrumentality, to use C’mell to steal information from the Instrumentality to further the rights of the underpeople. These characters are also featured in Smith’s full-length novel Norstilia.
“A Planet Named Shayol” is another standout story, a very literal descent into Dante’s Inferno, the prison planet of Shayol where the worst criminals in the Instrumentality are sent to be punished eternally. The main character is named Mercer, a name also used in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to describe the Christian-like martyrdom cult of Mercerism. He is sent to Shayol for an undescribed crime, and learns the true nature of punishment there, which is in turns more cruel and yet more benevolent than anyone would have expected. The imagery here would not be out of place in a Hieronymous Bosch painting.
Nice to see a review of Cordwainer Smith! Thanks, Stuart.