Book Review, Part 1.0 — The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith


Chinese conquests of Venus, cats fighting off extra-dimensional dragons, Soviet telepathic experiments gone wrong, and much much more! Cordwainer's The Rediscovery of Man is a grand, unique vision of Mankind's future and is a must read for anyone interested in a delightful journey that will both get them to ponder many new ideas and leave a smile on their face.

Note: this review is a combination of initial impressions after reading the book last fall with additional tweaks added in more recently. I'll write up another review of the book in the future, putting in the context of other recent sci-fi works I've been reading.

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The Rediscovery of Man is set in the Instrumentality of Mankind universe, one with many mysteries and insights. Throughout the myriad and excellent short stories, Cordwainer weaves a tale about mankind and its future that rivals the best and is unique in both its scope and creativity. From "pin-lighters" to "Go-captains", Underpeople (persons of non-human animal stock who have been made to look and act human), and ingeniously realized planets such as Shayol—where the Instrumentality sends people who are punished but where their partnering faction running the place also has...alternative goals—the universe is full of grin-inducing tales. While there is a certain detached coldness permeating the stories—an impression that one is both viewing a wondrous universe but also one where the cold, harsh reality of space and human nature are fully appreciated and realized—the (unintended?) humor and writing ability of the author keep things interesting and engaging.

Chronologically ordering the book by each story's rough position in the Instrumentality universe's timeline really helps the reader follow the general progression of the universe, the introduction of new technologies/ideas, and how they (along with major events) are received and then later used. It also causes one to re-read older short stories with knowledge of how things played out in the future. There is a refreshing lack of specific details for many events, from how man went from the initial discovery of what appears to be telepathy in "No, No, Not Rogov!" (and its potential connection to another short story in the book "Under Old Earth") to the creation of Scanner-humans who can survive space and the discovery of planoforming (a kind of hyperspace for faster than light travel by going through Space2) along with other technological marvels. This lends a mystery to the universe that the reader is free to fill in, which complements other aspects of the stories.

As hinted at before, many of the stories appear to be underlined with a certain, maybe dark (?), humor that often derives from the somewhat ridiculous-on-the-face-of-it nature of the scenarios at hand. For example, in On the Storm Planet Casher O'Neill, a recurring character, encounters a young, teenage woman whom he is sent to kill. Their initial interaction is confusing, both for the reader and character, but within that confusion, and how the girl talks and continues on without sarcasm or a hint of being in on the joke, lies a bit of mirth. The same can be said of the disturbing "When the People Fell", in which the Chinese come up with a solution that effectively solves a particular Venusian problem, but would disturb many (of Western sensibilities). This tension throughout many of the stories between the seriousness of the topic being explored, the sometimes ridiculous at face value nature of many stories's setups, and the interaction between the characters is often pulled off perfectly. This is also seen in one of the planoforming stories, where the idea that cats are being used to defend spaceships against extradimensional dragons is ridiculous on its face, but, once accepted, both makes sense in an odd sort of way and leaves the reader smiling.

The background myth of an expansive, ancient universe that pervades the stories adds great depth and Cordwainer's lack of detail about all aspects of the Instrumentality allows readers to imagine the vastness of the regions they control, the problems they faced, and all manner of things that are only hinted at. The Underpeople and their plight/problems are explored several times (e.g. in The Ballad of Lost C'Mell and The Dead Lady of Clown Town); however, a far future story that gave more details of the changes in Underpeople-human relations eons after the short-lived rebellion or successful gaining of limited rights would have been interesting. Alas, it seems Cordwainer never quite got around to it, but as it appears he was trying to parallel the situation of the lower/middle class in today's society, it might be apt that in both cases (to some) the struggle isn't finished and has a long way to go.

In a manner, the Instrumentality of Mankind resonates with me to such a degree because of the parallels with a book/short story series I have wanted to flesh out in a similar vein called Filugori. That was supposed to tell the tale of Humanity's expansion over many millennia, with news snippets, short stories, and longer narratives from different eras that would give an overarching view of how humanity changed in response to specific events. However, while that tale was focused on man's innate fear of loneliness, at the crazed mindset that would emerge if the deeply horrifying reality came to pass in which we explored the entire galaxy and found no alien life, Cordwainer's instead focuses on man rediscovering his adventurous spirit and desire for life that was lost in the pursuit of eternal life and efficiency1. In a sense, that sentiment was expressed in a short story I wrote over 7 years ago, Humanity's Gold, which hinted at the lull that humanity encountered when there was no Grand Adventure (in that case, the search for ever more gold) waiting on the horizon. Given the way society is talked about today in terms of GDP, efficiency, and how much economic productivity new and existing citizens bring to society, rather than what spirit and ideals people embody and live by or grand goals they are striving for, Cordwainer's overarching premise and stories are more appropriate now than ever before. I will discuss this more when we reveal plans for our new SpaceEmpire endeavor.

As I continue to ply the depths of old science fiction universes, this one will remain the gold standard due to its inventiveness, execution, and flair. Without reservation, this is a must read for any science fiction fan. Even for those who are not, there is a sense of wonder, awe, and vast scope that place this collection among the best that I've come across in a while.


1Note: after having read Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society, the Instrumentality appears to be a perfect case of the end point when technique is applied to its logical and most efficient conclusion.

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