In 1950, an unknown author under the pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith published a short story in an obscure magazine that was hardly read. The magazine disappeared, but the story remained and slowly gained prestige and admiration in the world of science fiction. But nobody knew who Cordwainer Smith actually was.
Over the next few decades, the mysterious Smith published another two score short stories of remarkable genius and readers discovered that all these stories were somehow linked and formed an immense arc of future history. But who was this Cordwainer Smith? It turned out to be a man named Paul Linebarger, an expert in psychological warfare and godson of Chinese prime minister Sun Yat-Sen. His best stories are now bundled as The Rediscovery of Man.
The “rediscovery of man” has a meaning for the text and also for the writer. The starfarers in Smith’s tales are tragic, human figures (even if they are not always, technically, human). And in later stories, those same characters from earlier stories have been mythologized as historical figures. Through the arc of his interlinked stories, Smith asks himself what it means to be human, and what it means to love and feel, in strange future times.
He does this far more profoundly than most science fiction writers, whose idealized characters are too often found in the genre. For many writers, characters are walking, talking ideas and vehicles to communicate visions of the future. So, while Smith’s universe is one of the most unique, strange and beautiful, it is also one of the most real, because he populates it with real people. He rediscovered man in science fiction.
After reading a few of his stories, I got the impression that Smith was narrating them to me from a distant future as legends of the past. I felt like I was reading about singular moments in history, only it just happens that this history is my future. The timeless stories of The Lady Who Sailed The Soul and The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal should have been in my history books and I should have seen countless adaptations in film, but I live in the wrong age. This is not the age of the Instrumentality of Mankind.
The short story A Planet Named Shayol is still one of the most fascinating and disturbing stories I have ever read and a favourite of mine. Reading Cordwainer Smith feels like gaining a cultural background in the shape of striking stories from a genius imagination. See what science fiction is capable of.