THE ROSY GLOOM OF CORDWAINER SMITH By John Robinson There is a rosy gloom in the stories of Cordwainer Smith. They take place in a candy apple universe where the candy is sometimes hard to find. Whether the picture he creates is painted over the gloom or the gloom painted over the picture is difficult to determine. There seems to be (as the cover of the paperback, The Planet Buyer) a borscht-red tinge of death; a shrouding, damning end to man as we know him and a new man living on afterward in an ever expanding universe. If you haven't read the stories of Cordwainer Smith we recommend that you do. Each has its own personal beauty. There is a kind of hope that makes them almost immobile; nevertheless, the characters and their situations are alive and moving. To anyone who has read Smith's stories a sweeping picture of life in the far future has been formed. Starting with one story the picture becomes more complete as further adventures are read. Because the picture is incomplete the reader is left wishing for more. Smith writes as if he were painting and writing poetry at the same time. His words become light energetic strokes that are filled with bright color and an energetic living. The few darker words are what make the reader curious. They are brief passages that describe people and cultures that are as interesting as the main characters, but only glossed over. The reader is left fancying himself as a science fiction sociologist- anthropologist fitting all the minute clues together. While Smith is creating a group of characters that somehow thrive in a vacuum of isolation, save that they themselves are thrown together, the reader follows from impossible scene to impossible scene and makes his way through the "sense-of-wonder" to find the missing parts for himself. All the time he thinks Smith wrote the entire story. Who is Cordwainer Smith? When we first read his stories we wondered who he could be. There were a tremendous number of writer teams that could write as Smith. We doubted that one man could write this way. There was a similarity to Ray Bradbury, but Bradbury would not write like this. C'mell and Rod McBan are not the kind of characters that he would create. T'ruth and the Wind People of "On the Storm Planet" may be very much like a number of Bradbury creations, but then again man has found peace with his machines in these stories. Isaac Asimov was another writer soon eliminated. The Instrumentality is very much like Asimov's Foundation, but the technology is quite different. Robert Heinlein was immediately dropped because of a decided difference and lack of philosophy. Also, Heinlein has the habit of using other writers' poetry rather than his own. He might have given a plot or two, but not a story. We finally gave up guessing when Galaxy stated that Cordwainer Smith taught sociology near Washington, D.C. It was later revealed that he was in New Zealand and that he had been a diplomatic assistant in the orient, where science fiction had helped him to become friendly with important foreign officials. Smith uses poetic writing to tell most of his stories. Occasionally in the middle of one of his romantic ballad-stories you may find some actual verse, like this: "This is the house of the long ago, Where the old ones murmur an endless woe, Where the pain of time is an actual pain, And things once known always come again. Out in the garden of death, our young Have tasted the valiant taste of fear, With muscular arm and reckless tongue, They have won, and lost, and escaped us here. This is the house of long ago. Those who die young do not enter here, Those living on know what hell is near, The old ones who suffer have willed it so. Out in the garden of death, the old Look with awe on the young and bold." This is the verse that goes through the mind of Rod McBan as he enters the garden of death for the test that will kill him or make him a man. He is part of that universe that Smith's stories form. On Norstrilia where Rod lives and is tested the basis of the economy are multi-tonned, sick sheep. There are other wonders that the reader and McBan encounter that are far more fantastic. It is Stroon that is removed from these sheep. Stroon is a drug that gives a long life and near immortality. The technology in Smith's far future is more fanciful than factual. Fantastic discoveries are made that would scarcely fit into the category of modern science. The planoform method of interstellar travel is amazingly logical. Many readers will probably wish they had devised the method. Space warp and inter-dimensional travel certainly aren't new ideas. Smith makes them seem very new. Computers are man-machine entities that are almost invisible because they are a part of the architecture and people take little heed to structural design. Medicine becomes more important than machinery. Besides the Stroon projects there are tests on the planet Shayol. Tiny spiked creatures mutate people and the mutated limbs and bodies are cut away for study. This is closer to an alchemy of medicine than a science of medicine. Confusion is a common part of the far future. Mass communications are banned because they lead to war and strife. The people of that time are ignorant of the cultures of other worlds and sometimes do not even know what is happening in their own back yards. It is possible that the same thing might have happened with extended and impoved communciations. Just as the lack of communications leaves a people ignorant of what is happening, so too, the extension of communication could lead to cultures bent on learning. They would be studying the past while living in the present and not knowing that an enemy might be attacking, but that is not a part of the action concerned. After thousands of years of ciilization people are still divided into those who live as if they were dead and those who really live. It is not simply colonists who are progressing and the old cultures that are decaying. While most of the dying, sterile people are on the old planets there are the underpeople also living on the old planets and waiting for their chance to be free and part of a growing society. Rod McBan is an example of a human (in an old society on a new planet) who fights his way from deadly surroundings and finds some hope for a future. Without the underpeople there would be no saga in Smith's stories. They are the key people, along with Rod McBan and the Instrumentality. While they are only mutated animals that have been made into humanoid form they show more human characteristics than their masters. Mankind is moving out among the stars and is thus isolated. There are no cities where thousands and millions of people can get together. Where there are cities the people choose not to meet. The only group that forces itself to come together is the underpeople. They meet in the underground parts of Old Earth's cities. While they are a key to the future there is something holding them back. They breed very little, or not at all. Rod McBan and C'mell come together and give the hope needed for the future. While their people die around them they plan a future. They show that there can be agreement, and even love between the two groups. We mentioned the small groups of people who were passed over briefly and said that they provided the major mystery to the E'people, transformed eagles, who believe and prove that Rod McBan is to be a messiah to the underpeople on Mars. They communicate using message-coding machines and employing a code of special moods used in what appear to be normal communications. Though they are found on only two pages of the entire novel The Planet Buyer the reader can be sure that they signal a sequel. On Shayol humans were suffering. They were becoming masses of mutation while their bodies shrank away. Finally someone came and set them free. They still lost much. They lost part of their souls. There are other oppressed people. The cat girls that are so common on Old Earth. Pleasure is their business and their purpose. They are the 'B' girls of their time; in reality, mere pets because they are denied physical love with humans upon penalty of death. These downtrodden people are looking for a deliverer. There is someone coming to set them free if they wait. The wait is a long one. Smith may shorten that wait in future stories, or he may jump to later times than those of Rod McBan (as he did in "On The Storm Planet") and merely give us clues to what follows. T'ruth exists as a servant after the time of Rod McBan. She is a servant because of her love for her master. She succeeds in giving orders to Casher O'Neill (the hero of "On the Storm Planet" and a hired bodyguard to T'ruth's master) who assumes that underpeople are still to be bossed. That must mean something and yet it is a puzzle. If Rod McBan succeeds in freeing the underpeople it may be a purely local thing common to Old Earth, or perhaps it will be like the Civil War with the slaves remaining slaves and gradually assuming the right to mix with and marry humans. The rest of the picture will have to be filled in with Cordwainer Smith's hand because the readers will only be able to guess at the possibilities. We hope these stories continue on for a long time. Not just because of a wish to know what happens to the characters, but because curiosity has been aroused surrounding the many mysterious cities, states, societies, cultures, and worlds of the distant future. It is not because the reader may wish a writer to thrive in his work, or for a most fantastic part of science fiction to increase itself, but for the enjoyment of discovering new worlds and adventures that a writer like Cordwainer Smith can create and continue to the enjoyment of his readers. [pp. 19 - 25, NO-EYED MONSTER #5, Winter 1965]
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