The Best of Cordwainer Smith Essay - Critical Essays

Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger


In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Cordwainer Smith brought a literary and poetic brand of science fiction to a genre dominated by hard science extrapolations. His world of talking animals, spacecraft lined with oysters, and boulevards into the sky suggests fantasy, but he is a science-fiction writer, one who deals with extraordinary extrapolations and analogical situations that have remarkable consistency and logic. He shows the impact of science rather science itself, and his stories focus on human relationships and reactions to a world created by science.

One of Smith’s major themes is romantic love. Scanner Martel maintains contact with his humanity through his love for his wife. Helen America and Mr. Grey-no-more have a love transcending the vast emptiness of space. Go-Captain Taliano, his brain destroyed, nevertheless retains a “shy and silly love.” Paul and Virginia feel compelled to play out a love story, and Jestocost and C’mell are figures in a story of true love denied. Romantic love is not a usual feature of science fiction, but it is a cornerstone of Smith’s created world.

In another direction, Smith sees the dangers of a perfected world in which disease, danger, and need are elim-inated; it is a sterile utopia of spoiled and unresponsive people. The people in “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” (1964), barely reacting to the brutal murder of the underpeople, are considerably less human than the beings derived from beasts. This is the perfected but suicidal world that Sto Odin sets out to remedy. His actions, indirectly but inevitably, bring about the Rediscovery of Man.

The treatment of the underpeople may be read as an allegory of racial inequality. The topic also speaks to developing scientific issues. Would a laboratory creation that behaves as a human be anything less than human? Have people thought through the implications of scientific discoveries? The underpeople challenge assumptions that they have. Smith warns that we must keep in touch with our humanity. Scanners, cut off from their senses (and figuratively their souls), are ready to kill Adam Stone, the scientist who can restore them to life.

Although his literary output was small, Cordwainer Smith has a special place in modern science fiction. His work cannot be compared easily with that of any other science-fiction writer.