I have many favourite science fiction stories:
- The Stars my Destination by Alfred Bester
- Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner
- Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein
- the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- the Faded Sun or Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh
- Greg Bear‘s Eon series
- the Gaea Trilogy by John Varley
- To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer
- anything by Arthur C. Clarke
- or Octavia Butler
- or Robert J. Sawyer
That’s to be expected when you’ve been reading SF since a very young age. And so it’s rare for me to come across something really amazing so that I’m forced to expand my favourites list. I did just that recently. I had heard of Cordwainer Smith (a pseudonym for Paul Linebarger, 1913-1966) before but had never read anything by him. So when I saw that my library happened to have the compilation book “We the Underpeople” I picked it up.
There are five short stories and a novel collected in this book:
- The Dead Lady of Clown Town
- Under Old Earth
- Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons
- Alpha Ralpha Boulevard
- The Ballad of Lost C’mell
The very first story in it, The Dead Lady Of Clown Town, blew my mind. Beautiful, touching, completely original, believable, amazing are how I would describe it. I was beside myself with admiration. And all the stories turned out in that vein. The meticulous Linebarger worked out his time line of the future (in an appendix at the end of this book), distant worlds and language to an impressive and unprecedented degree.
If you seriously consider science fiction as truly speculative than you would be hard pressed to find an author more interesting and ‘bursting out of the limits’ than Cordwainer Smith. And in a time when impossible movies can be made with the right tenacity and skill (e.g. Lord of the Rings) Linebarger’s future would be an excellent choice to be filmed.
Extremely highly recommended to SF fans.
- A shorter list
- A Google directory of Smith Reviews
- A website run by his daughter
- More on Old North Australia and Linebarger’s only novel, Norstrilia
- Cordwainer Smith checklists
- A link to an interesting contrasting essay for the story Alpha Ralpha Boulevard by Smith and the famous story The Roads Must Roll by Heinlein, I don’t know if I agree that Smith’s work is necessarily a pessimistic vision of the future but it certainly made me look at the story in a different way