The Rediscovery of Man

By Cordwainer Smith

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Few science fiction writers present us with a bigger puzzle than
Cordwainer Smith (1913-1966), an eccentric figure from the golden
age of sci-fi who retains a small but devoted cult following today.   
Was Smith a brilliant thinker or mentally ill?  
Was he an artist or an ideologue?   Was his
body of work a unified vision or a disparate
jumble?  Above all, did he see himself as
a writer of fictional stories or could it be
that he believed that his fanciful narratives
were, in some sense, true accounts based
on his personal experiences?

The strangest piece of information about
Cordwainer Smith—a pseudonym, one of
many employed by Paul Linebarger—comes
from a psychological case study published
in 1955, which described the “psychosis”
of a patient who experienced vivid visions
of life in outer space, incidents that the
individual believed were real, not imaginary.  
The preponderance of evidence suggests
that our sci-fi author served as the basis for this case study, which
was included by Dr. Robert Lindner in his book
The Fifty-Minute
.  Although final confirmation eludes us, the idea that Smith
believed himself capable of out-of-body experience beyond the Earth
may provide us with insights into the peculiarly intense nature of this
writer’s fictional works.

Indeed, many of the stories in
The Rediscovery of Man—which
collects virtually all of Smith’s shorter science fiction in a volume of
almost 700 pages—are pushed ahead by events that happen inside
people’s heads.   In several stories, he develops the concept of
characters who don’t exist in their own right, but are the projection of
other characters' minds.  In the tale “Nancy” he even holds nuptials
between a spaceship captain and a woman who is merely an
embodiment of his ideas about the opposite sex—and, yes, it is a
very happy union…at least until the spaceship gets back home.   In a
series of novellas about Casher O’Neill, who
plots a revolution on his home planet,
the hero learns how to project different
facets of his inner life as individual allies
who can assist him in battle.  In other
cases, the mental leaps do not result in
concrete manifestations—as in the many
stories here in which telepathy and mind-
reading play a key role—but the locus of
action still remains in the mental sphere.

At this point, I should probably  mention
that Linebarger’s most influential work
was not necessarily any he wrote under
the name Cordwainer Smith, but may have been his study
Psychological Warfare—a book that boasts its own cult following.
Even a used paperback copy of this work can bring in hundreds of
dollars on the web.  And for good reason.  Linebarger’s career
involved him in behind-the-scenes Cold War operations;  by one
account, his efforts in Korea led to the surrender of thousands of
enemy combatants—seasoned troops whose training and values
made them unlikely to wave the white flag.   In his book, Linebarger
suggested that

famous short story, “Scanners Live in Vain,” Smith describes a guild
of space pilots who are required to cut off much of their neural
hardwiring—rendering them deaf-mutes—in order to withstand the
“Great Pain of Space.”  The story is strange and deeply unsettling on
many levels, yet clearly demonstrates the extravagant inventiveness
of Smith’s conceptual fictions.   Even so, I am not surprised that, when
Smith submitted it to John W. Campbell, Jr., who presided over the
Astounding Science Fiction, the editor replied that is was
“too extreme” to publish.  

But the imaginative excesses of the plots cannot hide the deep
metaphysical constructs at the heart of Cordwainer Smith’s work.   A
recurring philosophical and moral issue constantly takes center stage
here:  namely, what it means to be a person.   In Smith’s universe—a
sociopolitical construct that he describes as the
Instrumentality of
—this concept of personhood cannot be taken for granted.  
The main characters are sometimes “real persons,” with similar DNA
to you and me.  But just as often, they are “underpersons”—a generic
term for modified animals.  Many of these have become almost
indistinguishable from humans, and in some instances they
demonstrate superior intellectual, moral and physical qualities to the
human characters;  yet they are denied the basic rights and respect
accorded to people.  In still other instances, we encounter humans
who have been genetically altered to meet the exigencies of different
planets…or robots of humanoid appearance…or mixtures of animal
parts with mechanical and electronic technology.

This may sound like the
bar scene in Star Wars, but in fact Smith is
acutely sensitive to the ethical and sociological issues presented by a
blurring of the concept of personhood.   Time and time again in his
stories, he focuses on the struggle of one or another group to
achieve the perks and prerogatives that are denied them because of
how society classifies their state of being.   Sometimes these
accounts reflect political issues of Smith’s time (and our own)—and
one can interpret these tales in terms of civil rights movements,
apartheid and other headline stories of the day.  In other instances,
he reaches for religious symbolism in describing these social
movements, and many have noted the Christian overtones of some of
his work—yet this is not the Christianity of the modern-day, but more
the underground movement of the early Roman empire, hidden in
catacombs and potentially subversive.

In a wildly inventive short novel from 1964, “The Dead Lady of Clown
Town,” the catacomb metaphor is powerfully realized.  Smith amplifies
on his key philosophical themes, and here again the author stands
out for his extreme effects.  He takes more than sixty pages to tell the
story of a revolution that “lasted six minutes and covered one
hundred and twelve meters.”   From one angle, Smith—who in his day-
to-day life was an expert on Chinese affairs, and had Sun Yat-Sen as
a godfather—seemed to be anticipating the Tiananmen Square
protests of 1989 in this story.   Yet the symbolic resonance of this
story, one of the finest science fiction works of the 20th century, goes
beyond any purely political interpretation.  

Unlike the vast majority of science fiction stories, “The Dead Lady of
Clown Town” is not just filled with provocative concepts, but is
daringly experimental in its appropriation of unconventional narrative
techniques.  Some of the action is told in a straightforward manner,
yet key scenes might be relayed in the lyrics of a song, the
description of a snippet of film, testimonies taken down years after the
events, and other indirect ways.   Here, as elsewhere in his oeuvre,
Smith is especially fond of starting his stories at the end and working
backward—he is even willing to slip in “spoiler” details in his opening
pages, trusting in his ability to maintain suspense in other ways.  

Needless to say, this focus on the metaphysical and psychological
made Smith an atypical personality in the world of science fiction.  In a
surviving letter, from 1948, which accompanied his submission of
“Scanners Live in Vain” to
Fantasy Book, he felt compelled to
apologize for the story:  “This is more ‘literary’ fiction than pulp fiction
but I have hopes that your magazine, being off-trail, might be
interested in using it.”  To sweeten his submission, Smith included a
check for $3.00 for a subscription and a stamped, self-addressed
envelope for response, before closing with a request that the
magazine publish more works by A.E. van Vogt.   

But the real issue here is not that Smith’s story is ‘literary.’ That is
hardly the word that comes to mind upon reading his work.  Rather
his imaginative universe is so unconventional, and at times so
austere—his fascination with the coldness and emptiness of remote
space almost borders on an obsession—that it seems like a
realization of some quasi-monastic worldview rather than a
springboard for fiction of any kind.  Other authors have dealt with the
conquest of space, perhaps as well or better than Smith; but none
has done a better job of conveying the psychic aspects of the
renunciation of the home planet that is the flip of side of this same
story.   After you strip away the action and conflicts on the surface
level of these tales, an ascetic tendency can be seen to run through
this author’s entire oeuvre.  

After reading through this lengthy collection of stories, you will be
struck by the apparent unity of vision in Smith’s work.  Even an early
story, such as “Scanners” seems to anticipate elements that would
appear in other stories written fifteen years later.   By the same token,
any reader trying to come to grips with Smith’s one full-length novel,
Norstrilia—the only major sci-fi work of his not included in this
volume—will hardly understand its nuances without having spent time
with these shorter fictions.  One can’t help wondering on the overall
connections between these stories.  Did Smith work out all of the
details of his imaginary universe at the start of his writing career?  Or,
even stranger to consider, did he experience them in some out-of-
body way?   

On the other hand, very little repetition takes place in these stories.  
Very rarely does a key character from one story play a major role in
another one—although minor characters do reappear with regularity.  
Even the recurring themes take on new dimensions as Smith’s work
evolved from the 1940s to the 1960s.  And the unity of Smith’s vision
seemed to coexist comfortably with the abundance of creative
ingredients, fresh new angles, and surprising shifts of scene, century
and galaxy—each calling cards of his style.  It is that very quality—the
endless ingenuity of our author as he piles up strange element upon
strange element—that stands out as the most salient trademark of
this author.  If in fact, he did feel as if he had lived these stories, at
second-hand or even first-hand, then one can only marvel at the
richness of such an interior life—and be thankful that these stories
survive as testimony.
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a country’s superiority versus hostile parties
could be based on an ability to “out-trick them,
out-talk them, and out-maneuver them.”  Can
we be surprised, then, that Smith’s sci-fi work
espouses a similar belief that the most significant
battlefront is often one drawn inside our psyches?

By the same token, Smith employs a range of
writing techniques—sometimes arcane narrative
structures or, at other points, peculiar plot devices—
that similarly aim at restricting or eliminating the
flow of empirical data that serves as the constitu-
tive element for most works of fiction.  In his most
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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