I’m going to have to apologise, y’all. I was planning on writing a smart-alec foul-mouthed snark at a text, but then I finished this book and, well, it’s a grown-up book and deserves an attempt at a grown-up review.
I’d never heard of Cordwainer Smith till I picked up The Rediscovery of Man as part of my consumerist quest to have as many as possible of the older SF Masterworks books. It contains a series of short stories all set in the same future universe, at different periods in time and societal development. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much, but I wound up amazed and hooked.
It helps that Smith’s writing is perfect for a geography nerd such as myself. The stories cover different stages of future development in an expanding space empire, a purposeful allegory to colonialism, however it doesn’t just stop there. Moving throughout the various stages of development allows Smith to explore many of his themes, human adaptation, pioneering women, war, technical improvements, fights for equality as well as banishment and punishment for crime. These are all explored through a variety of points of views, across many different settings, allowing a complex understanding through relatively simple tales.
The theme of societal stagnation in the face of immortality and predictability as an exploration into what is needed for happiness was easily my favourite theme in a few of the latter stories and appeared to have the most imaginative handling. That said, the binary assumption that life needs death for meaning is an idea I think I’m getting a little tired of.
This isn’t your usual Star Trek-esque feel-good colonial ‘help the savages’ exploration fortunately. Smith uses his ‘underpeople’ as a metaphor for race, their animal origins an uncomfortable reminder, for me a white Australian, of how other races were* treated in British expansion and settlement. Some of these stories do ‘fail’ a little, but I certainly felt that often the flaws were a result of combining too many layers of metaphor and too many thoughts into relatively short and concise stories exploring too many issues. The main surprise, really, is how well and implicitly most of the themes have been built into the universe, rather than the awkwardly explicit tacked-on feel many well-intentioned stories attempting these themes have.
Even the most problematic story is still thought-provoking and ambiguous enough to work for a more modern reader, I think. Titled ‘The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal’, the plot centres around the idea of a planet in which ‘femininity becomes carcinogenic’ creating a one-gendered world. The story, on the surface, appears surprisingly homophobic and transphobic, and is somewhat out of place among the other stories. I’m not sure if this is a case where Smith was intending an allegory that is now a little lost as an unintentional but more literal meaning has been created/made more obvious through time, or it’s genuinely hateful in theme. In any case, I’ve read the story twice over and I’m still confused as to what the moral actually was, so I’m hesitant to be too harsh.
You can see how his stories influenced other writers too. The cover has quotes from Pratchett, Baxter and Le Guin telling everyone how inspiring and inventive his stories are. It’s not exactly a great stretch to compare the above story about a planet on which there is only one gender to Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, and I’m sure a more detailed comparison would show more of its influence over the Hanish Cycle novels. This is probably a large part of the reason why I enjoyed these stories so much, actually – it’s that the grains of much greater stories are there were waiting to be developed beyond just colonialist allegory, even one as sophisticated as this one is.
I’m a little afraid I got too caught up in this book to be properly critical, I’d love to hear or read what other people have thought of Smith’s writing.
(*) I am using the past tense in a sort of wistful hope here.