Quest of the Three Worlds

By Cordwainer Smith

Rating: 4 stars

I found this in a trawl of second hand bookshops in Wigtown and mostly picked it up because I’m a big fan of Cordwainer Smith and a quick perusal of the back cover suggested that it wasn’t actually set in his Instrumentality of Man future history, since I think I’ve read everything he ever wrote in that. As it turns out, it actually does collect three linked stories set in the Instrumentality, but since I had no memory of any of them, I read the whole thing anyway.

I’m very fond of Smith’s prose style. It’s maybe a bit purple, but it’s poetic and soaring and I love that. The rough plot involves Casher O’Neill’s travels through the stars, searching for weapons to help him retake his home planet after a coup. The first story has him travelling to a planet where gems are common and soil is rare, and helping to deal with an immortal horse that an eccentric brought to the world. There’s some glorious description and the feeling of a deep history – that this history exists somewhere in space and time. But it’s also distinctly tongue in cheek, Smith pointing out the absurdities of life, using a planet where a bucket of soil is worth more than a gemstone the size of your head.

The second sees Casher travel to a world where he’s asked to kill a girl, in exchange for a busted space cruiser. It’s no spoiler to say that he can’t kill her and ends up becoming a sort of disciple. This one was a bit creepy in places, as O’Neill sexualises this person, named T’ruth, who looks like a prepubescent child. There’s also a bunch of Christian symbolism that I don’t remember in Smith’s writing before and didn’t really know what to do with.

The final story in the main arc sees Casher, now armed with huge psychic powers, finally return to his homeworld and, after he completes his lifelong mission, goes off on a journey. This was the strangest of all the stories here, and I had little clue of what was going on and what Casher was looking for at the source of the “Thirteenth Nile”. This really felt like the weakest of the stories in the collection. I can see that Smith didn’t necessarily want to do the straight big fight/end of the hero’s journey thing that’s so common, but his replacement felt a bit incoherent to me.

There’s a fourth story in the book, which is only tangentially related, in that the plot is kicked off by Casher, but we follow three living weapons sent by the Instrumentality to deal with a very distant planet from where a psychic hatred of humanity was detected. I enjoyed this a lot, but Casher was only in it as a distant observer, providing some exposition when needed. It helps to expand the universe of the Instrumentality, rather than Casher’s story.

If I’d realised that I already owned the stories in the book I wouldn’t have bought it, but it was fun returning to Smith’s vast future history, and since I didn’t remember any of them, I can’t say it wasn’t worth it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345329318
Publisher: Del Rey
Year of publication: 1978

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