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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.

MY RATING:

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.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: There are some really outstanding stories such as “A Planet Named Shayol“, “Scanners Live in Vain“, and “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons“, and some really innovative ideas.

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.

10 Comments on REVIEW: The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

  1. Someday I hope to own a copy of this.  Right now I have a couple scattered paperbacks with his stories in them, one of which I reviewed earlier in the year, Space Lords, and just loved.  It had Dead Lady of Clown Town in it and it will probably be a story that remains high on my list of favorite science fiction short stories for a long, long time.  I’m definitely impressed with Cordwainer Smith’s storytelling ability and more with the ideas that he had. 

    Sight unseen I would agree that having a short story collection in chronological order might not be the best way to keep a non-fan interested.  I have a friend who is a big George R.R. Martin fan and his efforts to slog through some of the earlier stories in Martin’s recent chronological collections sounded quite brutal.

  2. Linebarger did write other novels (“Atomsk”, with the pseudonym “Carmichael Smith”; “Ria” and “Carola”, with the pseudonym “Felix C. Forrest” and poetry with the pseudonym “Anthony Bearden”). He also wrote a non-fiction work (“Psychological Warfare”) under his real name (I own an **autographed** copy, and I gloat over it).

    The “chronological order” of the collection is not the order in which the author wrote, but the chronological order of the series–as best that can be told by sometimes conflicting internal evidence (the series evolved, it did not spring forth in an organized fashion, so sometimes you see the cracks). Several of the Ballantine (or Del Rey) paperbacks organized the tales in the same (general) fashion and it always worked for me.

    I have to wonder what was lost, though. Linebarger left (IIRC) a briefcase in a restaurant once. In the briefcase was a notebook full of notes, outlines, dates and more for the series and future stories. What might have been!

  3. Atomsk, Ria, and Carola are not science fiction books, at least not from what I can tell.  Fred, have you read them?  From what I can find Atomsk is a spy novel, and the other 2 are fiction works that explore human dynamics similar to what is found in his sci-fi, but aren’t sci-fi.

    I should have included a link to it, but his daughter has a fantastic web site at http://www.cordwainer-smith.com/ that explains much of his history.

  4. Yep.

    I’d actually recommend The Best Of Cordwainer Smith – or the similarly titled SF Masterworks volume that is just the stronger stories.

    Btw,

    Baen has Cordwainer Smith in dead tree and the best sort of ebook.

     

  5. @Blue – there are 2 books.  The ‘SF Masterworks’ book is also titled ‘The Rediscovery of Man’ and it was a reprint of the 1975 Ballantine book titled ‘The Best of Cordwainer Smith’ but neither are in print.

  6. Yes, I know, as in ‘similarly titled’. 🙂

     

    Also, you are wrong.  

     

    I’ve seen The Rediscovery Of Man in a bookstore recently.

    Plus, here, for example :-

    http://www.bookdepository.com/book/9781857988192/The-Rediscovery-of-Man

     

     

  7. Plus there are the two Baen volumes, where you can get Norstrilia and the rest :-

     

    http://www.webscription.net/p-462-we-the-underpeople.aspx

     

    http://www.webscription.net/p-615-when-the-people-fell.aspx

     

    Rediscovery Of Man as in The SF Masterworks version, that is.

  8. In the late ’70s I lived in Cincinnati, and read the Ballantine edition of The Best of Cordwainer Smith. It mentioned his other pseudonyms, so I went down to Bertram Smith’s Acres of Books, one of those old-fashioned, huge, dusty used bookstores, to see what I could find. Lo and behold, a very nice copy of Ria in a dust jacket, with a half-page inscription in purple ink to Martha Taft (almost certainly the wife of then-Senator Robert Taft, son of William Howard Taft), and signed “Felix C. Forrest.” It was, IIRC, $2.

    Twenty years later I found the Psychological Warfare text at a garage sale for 75 cents.

    Finally, about five years ago, I was in Long Beach. The little magazine in the hotel room had an ad and a 10% off coupon for Bertram Smith’s Acres of Books(!). So I visited and it turned out Bertram had sold the Cincinnati store, moved to Long Beach, started a new one, and then passed away. Remembering my earlier find, I combed through the Fs in Fiction and, amazingly, there was a copy of Carola! No DJ and no signature, but it was $2, minus the 10% coupon.

    My copy of Atomsk I bought online. Not much fun in that!

  9. The other books are not SF, but you were talking about his “short fiction” and not necessarily specifically his SF, just figured I chime in with the fuller picture.

    PapayaSF, you lucky book collector, you! Wow! I paid over a hundred for Psychological Warfare and got a bitter, bitter note from the eBay seller, it seems he was hoping for a lot more, but since he didn’t set a reserve, tough cookies. I’ve seen ex-library copies, without dustjackets being sold for four or five hundred dollars, I gloat over my pristine copy with dustjacket and extensive inscription by Linebarger.

    A friend of mine found a copy of Fantasy Book, with the first appearance of “Scanners”, he paid a pretty penny, IIRC.

    The Baen editions, together, contain what you’ll find by Smith in the NESFA editons, but they are trade paperbacks so won’t last as long as the NESFA editions. There are differences in the introductory material by other people, etc., differences in art. I really like the Baen eBooks (I can carry them on my eBook reader along with nearly 5,000 other texts in something about the size of a thin trade paperback…ain’t the future wonderful?)

  10. I agree with you in recommending the NESFA Press edition of Smith’s complete short stories, The Rediscovery of Man, over previous collections that were less complete or were poorly proofread. I also agree that the NESFA editors’ attempt to print the stories in strict temporal order (temporal in the sense of when each story fits into Smith’s Future History) unfortunately resulted in several weak stories coming early in the volume. However, only one of those weak stories was a juvenile attempt — “War No. 81-Q”– and even that one was rewritten by Smith in later life to make it fit into the Future History. Two other stories that take place early in the timeline were written either in part (“Mark Elf”) or entirely (“The Queen of the Afternoon”) by Smith’s widow, Genevieve Linebarger, and she was just not a very good writer. She also wrote a story that takes place late in the timeline, “Down to a Sunless Sea,” supposedly on the basis of ideas her late husband had conveyed to her — but again her writing ability did not come anywhere close to his brilliance.

     I’d also recommend the novel Atomsk, published under the name Carmichael Smith, if you’re desperate for more Cordwainer Smith and have read everything else by him (including his one SF novel Norstrilia). Atomsk is usually described as a thriller, but when he wrote it, it was really more of a near-future work of science fiction, since its main action took place in a Russian nuclear weapons facility that was not known to exist at the time. It’s exciting, witty, and psychologically subtle, a sort of pre-James-Bond spy novel that’s better written than anything Ian Fleming ever produced. It’s also very hard to find — I have only a photocopy from interlibrary loan — but Smith’s daughter Rosana Hart will soon make a reprint edition available for sale.

     

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