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Bookends: Examining the Future of Humankind February 6, 2013

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Smith -People FellBookends: Examining the Future of Humankind

By Dan Davidson

September 23, 2012,   Star, Sept. 28/13

– 995 words –

We the Underpeople

By Cordwainer Smith

Baen Books;

480 pages


When the People Fell

By Cordwainer Smith

Baen Books

848 pages


Both are $6.00 as eBooks from Baen, readable through iBooks

The future history is, as might be expected, a staple of the science fiction genre. In the early days writers like Asimov and Heinlein worked out timelines within which to tell many of their short stories and novels and, while that practice fell out of favour for a time, later writes such as Larry Niven kept it alive and a whole cluster of current writers are busy doing it again.

Many of the outlines are analogs of real historical events bumped into the future by scientific innovation. Colonization of new planets often follows the pattern of the arrival of settler culture in North America, for instance. Some writers take historical events, such as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and reshape them to tell their stories.

Whatever the case may be, one thing that tends to be a common feature is that they are stories of exploration and adventure, often with a fair amount of military action in them.

Cordwainer Smith (1913-1966), whose greatest output was in the 1950s and early 1960s, was completely out of sync with the general run of material being published at the time. His future history has an almost mythological tone to it, as well as a historical tone, for there is clearly a consistent narrative voice behind all of these tales. They are told out of sequence and frequently refer back to each other, so that you do get some sort of sense as to what happens first, but they are in no way a straightforward narrative.Smith -Underpeople

And rather than being adventures of conquest and battle, they tend to be stories of self-discovery. In Smith’s future history the galaxy has been colonized and humans live in a variety of strange places, which have affected them in many ways.

Some of this unique style was probably the result of their creator’s real life occupation. Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym under which Dr. Paul Linebarger wrote science fiction.

Linebarger was born in Milwaukee, grew up Japan, China, France and Germany; was the godson of Sun Yat-Sen (once the president of China); became a Professor of Asiatic Studies at Johns Hopkins University; was on the U.S. Operations, Planning and Intelligence Board during World War II; and became a Colonel in Army Intelligence.

After World War Two, he was advisor to the British forces in Malaya and to the U.S. Eighth Army in Korea, and wrote the book Psychological Warfare, regarded for decades after as the most authoritative text in the field.

This was a lot of original background to bring to a field that had tended to be dominated by science geeks and people whose starting point for a story was often “what if such-and-such a device or practice were real”, how would that effect people.

While Smith makes reference to lot of devices and practices (solar sails to drive spaceships, gene surgery to turn animals into humanoid “underpeople”, telepathy, drugs that enable immortality, faster than light travel through different dimensions of space and time), he makes no attempt to explain any of them and simply uses them as background dressing for stories about people who have to make difficult decisions.

His tales of the Underpeople echo the human rights struggles that were going on in the United States while he was writing. His version of colonization stories talks about the weird and wonderful experiences that people have on different planets. His ruling class, the Instrumentality of Mankind, seems to me to reference oriental patterns of organization and governance rather than the federal and western frontier arrangements that often dominate future histories. Indeed, a number of the stories deal with the time that the Lords of the Instrumentality decided that life had become too comfortable, too homogeneous and predictable, and therefore inaugurated the Rediscovery of Man, which entailed cultural revivals as well as the return of diseases and a certain degree of hardship.

One thing that Smith/Linebarger did have in common with a lot of other writers of the period is that he assumed the world of his day was going to move forward into some sort of global catastrophe, and that the history he was telling was about the future that rose from the ashes of that unfortunate event.

The Baen reissue of Smith’s works seems to me to work better than the old Ballantine Books paperbacks that I still have from the 1980s. Most of the contents are short stories, though there are some novellas, one novel, and one sequence of stories that runs to about novel length.

I decided to read his work again after coming across a couple of online sites dedicated to his work. You can download an illustrated 3300 word appraisal of his life and work if you Goggle “Tripping Cyborgs and Organ Farms: The Fictions of Cordwainer Smith” and it will give you a link to an even longer work (about 20 pages) called “The Creation of Cordwainer Smith” by Alan C. Elms. These are good reading.

I’ve been travelling this month. An internet glitch somewhere between Yarmouth and Whitehorse is why this column missed a week earlier on. I decided to take Smith with me, and downloaded the two collections from Baen Books to read using iBooks rather than lug along my four aging paperbacks. These seem to have just about everything in them and I found that the arrangement of the stories helped me to imagine a bit of a timeline for the events. I’ve enjoyed these tales of the cat woman and revolutionary C’Mell, the Underpeoples’ Saint D’Joan and the weird and wonderful adventures of the scanners, pinlighters, go-captains, and Ron McBan, the Boy who Bought the Earth.




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