REVIEW: The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith
REVIEW SUMMARY: The full title is The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith with an emphasis on complete. The book contains all the known short fiction by Cordwainer Smith (whose real name is Paul M. A. Linebarger) including things he wrote when he was a kid and just learning to write.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Editor James A. Mann has brought together all available writings by Smith, including some discovered during the research for the book and a story completed by his widow.
CONS: Some early stories are clearly part of his learning process as a writer and were hard to read and come early, potentially turning readers off.
BOTTOM LINE: Worth reading if you are interested in learning about Smith’s history and reading his short fiction. The best are in here, and if you’re new to him you might want to read those first and then go back to some of the earlier works.
In 1993 the New England Science Fiction Association published what can only be described as a labor of love. The team under the direction of James A. Mann worked with all the source material they could get, from magazine submissions rescued from storage rooms to personal notes of Linebarger’s stored in various universities, to things his wife has saved. The outcome is this excellent book, The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith. Unless some new source material comes to light, this is the final word on almost all the science fiction Linebarger wrote (he did write one novel, Norstrilia). If you’re looking for his history and how his ideas evolved, this is the book for you. In other words, if you already like Cordwainer Smith, you’ll really enjoy this book.
The are many great ideas and excellent plots in his stories. Was he the first to explore these ideas? I’m not entirely sure – he did write in the 60′s and had a wealth of prior writings to take from. For example, “Scanners Live in Vain” is a very well done story about obsoleting human jobs through advancing technology. “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons” is an innovative story about using amplified brain waves as a weapon. And “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” is filled with great prose and the powerful idea of martyrdom for non-human rights and an homage to Joan of Arc. One of his ideas involves the uplifting of Earth animals human-like appearance in order to create a slave race with animal traits (cats are graceful, elephants are strong, dogs are reliable to a fault, etc.) It’s extremely well done and I’ll never forget the portrayal of these “supposedly less than human” sentients and their struggles in bondage.
But (and you know this was coming), if you’re not already a fan, I’m not sure this is the book to start with. The majority of the short stories are organized in chronological order of the Instrumentality universe he mostly worked in (there are several stories that aren’t in this universe that are listed afterwards.) This is a fine way to organize a book, except that you get early writings and late writings mixed together in a hodgepodge of quality. I know many people won’t agree with me, but his early writings (especially from when he was a kid) are pretty poor. Most of these come early in the chronology, and I felt it made the beginning part of the book hard to get through unless you’re already enthusiastic about the author. I often found myself slogging through those stories and wanting to quickly skip ahead. Heck, maybe that’s a fine way to read the book, but if you’re like me and wanting to understand why so many people (including many sci-fi authors such as Harlan Ellison) are in love with Smith, you’re going to want to get to those good stories first, then go back and read his evolution as a writer.
As a result of that, I give this book 3.5 stars. If you’re a fan of Smith, you’ll probably love this complete collection of his short fiction. But if you’re not, you might give Norstrilia a read first then come back to this book.
Tagged with: Cordwainer Smith
Filed under: Book Review
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