Thursday, April 3, 2014

Review of The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

Inspired by MPorcius's readings, I decided to re-read Smith's work and discovered what I remember as great has only gotten better over the years, somehow...

Due to its general dependence on the unknowns of the future and technology, science fiction is a genre of literature that does not age well.  People still appreciate H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth for their roles and qualities in the field, but there remain strikingly dated elements or overriding worldviews which immobilize other perspectives.  That being said, there are jewels of the genre which float above the clock, heedless to the passage of time.  Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are works that will age only because of immutable time, all else transcendent.  Ignoring the contemporary and striking at the heart of humanity, Cordwainder Smith’s The Rediscovery of Man is another such work that has yet to show a gray hair or a wrinkle.

Published over the course sixteen years, 1950 to 1966, the stories in the collection represent one man’s vision of mankind’s future evolution.  The stories, though unequivocally science fiction, toe the lines of magic realism, surrealism, and the fantastic, and offer the briefest of glimpses into the Instrumentality of Mankind—a super intelligent overseer, of sorts.  Vivid, colorful, dynamic, they possess the energy and vivacity of James Tiptree Jr., every ounce of Ray Bradbury’s humanism, and the mind for bizarre technology of Alfred Bester and Philip K. Dick; it’s beyond certain Smith had his influence on the genre.

What issues does The Rediscovery of Man tackle?  As hinted at by the title, and in keeping with the modernist times Smith himself lived through, the collection is a reflection on the advance of technology and society, and the manner in which humans evolve within this transition.  His argument: no matter what mankind does to itself, to other forms of life, or creates as life, there will always be a core element that humanity will cherish or return to.  “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” speaks to the meta-view of society’s evolutions; “The Burning of the Brain” locates that part of us—or one of us—willing to be a martyr; “Golden Was the Ship – Oh! Oh! Oh!” examines the manipulation of the lower by the higher; “Under Old Earth” finds a post-human questing for mortality; “A Planet Named Shayol” sees pain taken as a positive. And so on go the story profiles, each stylistically presenting a perspective on humanity through a fascinating and fantastic lens.

I have read many reviews of the collection, and seemingly each person who reads The Rediscovery of Man has their heart captured by one particular story.  That story different for everyone, Smith has the ability, like a selection of ice cream, to offer something the reader relates to, yet maintains the mix within certain, undefined limits.  From the pinlighters of “The Game of Rat and Dragon” to the crazy cats of “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal”, the desire for immortality drugs in “Mother Hitton’s Little Kittons” to the quasi-love story of “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul”, there is something for everyone, the parts between only slightly less marked. 

One of, if not the strongest aspect of the collection is its ability to present humanity in settings and scenes which seem anything but—association through disassociation.  The android Lord Sto Odin’s visit to the underworld, carried on a palanquin by two robot legionnaires, would seem anything but an organic premise.  Yet his confrontation with Sun-Boy, the cronohelium they argue over, and the dancing which results is the very blood and sweat we are made of.  Though more visible in some stories, and others less so, the collection nevertheless holds true to its title throughout: finding and treasuring, for better or worse, the beauty and ugliness of this thing we call human existence.

No putterer with the pen, Smith also proves himself a unique stylist in The Rediscovery of Man.  Neither flowing or eloquent, baroque or moodily minimalist, part of the stories’ flavor and appeal is the singular voice.  See the following sample:

Human flesh, older than history, more dogged than culture, has its own wisdom.  The bodies of people are marked with the archaic ruses of survival, so that on Fomalhaut III, Elaine herself preserved the skills of ancestors she never even thought about – those ancestors who, in the incredible and remote past, had mastered terrible Earth itself.  Elaine was mad.  But there was a part of her which suspected she was mad.

Smith writes like Thelonious Monk plays the piano: you keep waiting for his seemingly clumsy fingers to strike a bad chord.  But they never do, and in the process clunk and plink out some of the most unique, original phrasing of the genre.  The stories of The Rediscovery of Man are filled with bizarrely beautiful gems of expression tucked into the folds of dynamic narratives nobody can predict.  Capturing that salience of presentation so many authors aim at but so few achieve, half the collection’s pleasure is the eccentric writing.

Along with the human agenda, Smith likewise has a religious one—at least a partial one.  Not a blunt apologist like C.S. Lewis or as open a symbolist as Gene Wolfe, finding theological hints and clues in and among the stories is a difficult exercise.  More often depending on story structures tried and true, e.g. Joan of Arc, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, etc., the story structures are imprinted upon common enough material that appear anything but—Smith’s far future, post-human visions unique enough in their own right.  The relationship between the Instrumentality of Mankind and the Underpeople (and animal people) who arise over time is anything straight-forward.  Multi-layered and multi-hued, it is rich to the bone.

In the end, The Rediscovery of Man is one of the standout pieces of science fiction mankind has produced.  Amongst the top ten works ever written, many of Smith’s contemporaries are household names even if he isn’t.  The collection, which collates all of the works Smith wrote in the Instrumentality of Mankind universe (save the novel Norstrilia), is a glittering mosaic of ideas popping into and fading from view in bright, bittersweet fashion.  A fresh, truly unique perspective, the collection remains as readable today as it did when originally published, time seeming to have aged it none.  I want to continue gushing, such is the impression the collection left on me, but I really should stop now…


  1. Great review, now I find myself wishing to read some Cordwainer Smith RIGHT NOW.

    1. Then there is good news for you: The Rediscovery of Man and Norstrilia are still in print! :)