By Cordwainer Smith

Rating: 4 stars

This is Smith’s only SF novel, and I mourn the lost stories that he could have told. It’s not the only story in this future history though, with many short stories being collected in a volume called The Rediscovery of Man, and even more being collected in a different volume, confusingly with the same name, that collects all his short fiction.

The Rediscovery of Man tells the future history of a universe ruled by the benign dictatorship of the Instrumentality of Mankind. Over time, humanity stagnates in its utopia, and so a grand project, the Rediscovery of Man, is created in order to bring violence, danger and excitement back into people’s lives.

This book tells one story set during this period. The planet of Old North Australia (Norstrilia) is the only place in the universe that the immortality drug, stroon, can be found. It’s a hard place, where the people live simple lives, and luxury imports are taxed at millions of percent to keep them that way. Where each child reaching adulthood has to pass a rite, and if they fail, they are sentenced to death. This is the story of how one Nostrilian boy, Rod McBan, (just reaching manhood) becomes the wealthiest man in the universe, buys the Earth, and gets away with it. In the process, many people try to kill or abduct him, and he gets involved, mostly without his knowledge, in the schemes of the Instrumentality itself.

Rereading this after many years, I’d forgotten how much I love Smith’s lyrical language (his writing reminds me of Bradbury, but while Bradbury’s work is usually small-scale and down to earth, Smith lets his soar). It has its issues, mostly of their time; although there two relatively major female characters – the girl Lavinia, who loves Rod, and C’mell, the most beautiful girlygirl on Earth, who helps him – neither of them get much in the way of characterisation. But on the other hand, there’s a character who, by the end of the book, could be considered to be trans, and that is accepted, without judgement.

The plight of the underpeople, animals uplifted to sentience and human form, is fascinating, as an obvious analogue to slavery, and their slow, patient, movement towards equality with “real” people. They are complex, and more of their movement is described in the short stories (including the martyrdom of D’joan).

I don’t think Rod has much in the way of agency in the book, he’s mostly thrown from one situation to the next, barely having time to draw breath. Sometimes I find this frustrating, but it bothers me less here, and I’m not entirely sure why. Possibly because Rod has so many new experiences throughout his adventures. He’s wide-eyed and appreciates each experience, and that makes it harder to be hard on him for his lack of agency.

A beautifully lyrical book, set in a rich future history and an exciting story that moves at quite a pace. Just a warning though, it does end on a slightly jarringly bleak note.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575070189
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1975

The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith

By Cordwainer Smith

Rating: 5 stars

This volume contains the entire of Cordwainer Smith’s short science fiction. This mostly consists of stories set in his “Instrumentality of Mankind” future history, but there are a handful of other stories at the end. The Instrumentality universe is a massive imagining, as mankind is shepherded by the all-powerful Instrumentality, protecting it from itself and beyond.

The stories here are lyrical, vivid creatures that demand to be savoured, one or two at a time and Smith’s style reminds me in some ways of Ray Bradbury, another of my favourite writers. This volume, combined with Norstralia contains the sum total of Smith’s output, cut short by a heart attack at the awfully young age of 53. The Instrumentality universe is rich and varied, with themes including the liberation of the Underpeople (genetically modified animals used as slaves) and the meaning of what it is to be human (leading to the “Rediscovery of Man” period).

Picking highlights is difficult, but Scanners Live in Vain, Smith’s first published story, is excellent. It tells of the men who man the spaceships, with their sensory nerves cut to block out the “pain of space” and the volunteers who undergo the same procedure to monitor them, and the process that could make them obsolete. The Dead Lady of Clown Town and The Ballad of Lost C’Mell both deal with the liberation of the underpeople while Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons is a darkly humorous story about the lengths that the Norstalians will go to to protect their monopoly of the immortality drug, Stroon.

In all, this a marvellous collection for any fan of future history and the Instrumentality will stay with me for quite some time.

Book details

ISBN: 9780915368563
Publisher: NESFA Press
Year of publication: 1993

Powered by WordPress