Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Taste of Cordwainer

"Isaac Asimov": 8.8 million Google hits.
"Cordwainer Smith": 274,000 Google hits.

I've always liked Asimov, and I can quote the Three Laws of Robotics by heart. But if you want to talk about stories that burrowed into my brain and stay with me now, thirty years later, it's Cordwainer Smith, hands down. And nobody knows who he is.

More after the jump.

Of course, Smith wasn't as insanely prolific as Asimov, and when it came to science fiction, he tended to write short stories, not novels. So Asimov gave his publishers a giant catalog of material to reprint, while Smith's work was anthologized and then forgotten. Mostly.

But my God, comparing a story like "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" even to, say, Asimov's superbly creepy classic "Nightfall"...well, it's almost unfair, actually. It's apples and...and something else.

And there are dozens of writers like Smith, who wrote the weird, the powerful, the truly different - and they're generally not the ones that we remember. Because F/SF thrives on new writers (with the exception of Tolkien and Lewis, I guess) and the old pioneers fade away - especially if their advances depended at least a little on literary experimentation. (Smith - whose real name was Paul Linebarger, and who was an expert in psychological warfare, a colonel in US intelligence, and a professor of Asian Studies - used classic Chinese narrative techniques in many of his stories.)

Some of Cordwainer Smith is up on the Web (with permission of his estate). Do yourself a favor and read him. Try just a little taste.

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