Man in plain view

The Rediscovery of Man

Cordwainer Smith is one of those secrets that everyone who's anyone knows about: in this case, a smibboleth. Made more mysterious by his pseudonym (curiously not yet derided as the expansion of Iain M. Banks' name has been) and the posthumous destruction of his notebooks by his widow, the Cordwainer myth is in danger of eclipsing his work altogether.

This is unfortunate, as a brief reading of Smith's stunning SF work shows. The Rediscovery of Man is an anthology of a number of his short stories. Drawing on the style of Chinese legend---learnt during his formative years with his father, legal advisor to Sun Yat-sen---Smith builds into his stories a timelessness and a depth of human emotion and character rare in such stories. His characters, more than his plot devices or technical specifications, leap from the pages and begin to tell you the story themselves.

The shorts are occasionally variable in quality, and where Smith most obviously borrows from Chinese myth (The Dead Lady of Clown Town and The Ballad of Lost C'mell, and the opening paragraphs to other stories) he loses his own voice: the nuts and bolts start to show at these points, and the reader is briefly lost as form and content begin to come apart. This aside, though, Smith's style is stunning and has a brevity whose loss, in the face of infodumps and pedestrian Gibsonisms, is to be mourned.

Much is made of Smith's self-consistent universe which spans millennia of history (and the ashes of all those notebooks). Again, this seems to be missing the point: plenty of great authors haven't seen the need to invent whole other universes, and it's unclear why relentless comparisons of the size, scope, shape or logic of such plans leads to universe envy among so many practitioners of Smith's genre. Rather, Smith succeeds because he winds a thread through his imagined history, and ultimately does not ruminate on imagined events, but on the human reaction to these: the commonality of rumination, leading the race of man to its rediscovery.