MagazineBook reviews

Just in | Library of book reviews 


The Science Fiction Of Cordwainer Smith by Karen L. Hellekson

1/8/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Science Fiction Of Cordwainer Smith in the USA - or Buy The Science Fiction Of Cordwainer Smith in the UK

author pic

pub: McFarland & Company, Inc. 158 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: 31.50 (UK), $35.00. ISBN: 0-7864-2091-X.

check out websites: and

If you've only ever heard of Cordwainer Smith, then you need to check his books out before reading this book. He only wrote one SF novel, 'Norstrilia' and most of his short stories can be found in 'The Best Of Cordwainer Smith' (get the J.J. Pierce edited edition) and 'Quest Of Three Worlds', all of it involving his 'Instrumentality Of Mankind' reality. A lot of this material has also been reprinted in part in smaller volumes but those three cover the most material. Smith died at the age of fifty-three and so we'll never know where he would have taken the stories reality. Indeed, no one can follow him because his material is embellished from a background you would have had to have lived to incorporate it in the stories.

From Karen L. Hellekson's book it is pretty obvious that Paul Linebarger, the real name behind Smith, was one of us. When young, he travelled the globe with his parents and was pretty much an outsider despite the experience. Considering his views and dislike of prejudice in his stories, it's obvious that he was affected deeply by such issues. Oh yeah, he was also an intelligence officer with some knowledge of brainwashing techniques and a taste for puzzles. Hardly surprising that he wrote under a variety of pen-names. Of these, Cordwainer Smith was reserved for Science Fiction. This book has a look at his other works and if anything illustrates how difficult it was for him to break into the industry despite the fact that they all thought he was a good writer. Other than acquiring a copy of one of his books on propaganda, I can only really speak for his SF work.

Hellekson points out a lot of the sources for the unusual words he used. I never knew until reading here that Shayol, from his short story, 'A Planet Called Shayol', actually means hell both in Hebrew and Arabic, which it clearly was if you were imprisoned there. Even if you bought this book purely for glossary, the range of specialised words he brought to his stories makes for an interesting vocabulary. You think Frank Herbert was the first to pilfer from different languages then you'll have that rectified here as Smith borrowed from a multitude of languages and a good lesson for anyone looking for a new word for something nearly ordinary to check across languages. Mind you, with an invented word like 'cranch' as a mean to connect your senses back to your emotions, you could never know what he was thinking.

When read within the context of his stories, Smith had the knack for you to pick up the meaning of the words by the context that they were laid out in them. It wouldn't be hard to realise a girliegirl was a Japanese geisha for instance. When you realise that Smith is really playing with you in his stories and seeing if you are paying attention you realise what kind of ball park you're actually playing in.

When I read stories, I don't tend to read for inner meanings first. Even so, it wasn't difficult to realised 'The Dead Lady Of Clown Town' has a strong resemblance to the life of Joan of Arc when I first read it, especially when the lead character was called D'Joan. Seeing it pointed out for all the stories brings out a better appreciation of his material. Even better, Smith never made a thing about how clever he was. The material is there for you to find at any level you want to read it. He certainly had an influence on my own work and probably why I took to layering my stories so easily.

The Instrumentality stories were more like snippets into an existing reality that let you piece together the jigsaw Smith was creating beyond the printed page. Hellekson explains that Smith was rarely into the hard sciences and didn't give much in the way of explanation as to how people could travel the three different spaces. It does look like he was one of the first to use phototonic sails in space before moving onto planoforming to travel the maddening two-dimensional space before the appearance of space-three that didn't even need spacecraft. If he wasn't technically apt, it certainly didn't stop his imagination working and evoking the concept, let alone examining the problems with such space travel.

If you want to get a deeper appreciation of Cordwainer Smith then this is a good and only place to start. Read his stories, read this book and read them again. A rare and missed talent. This book affirms what a missed talent he was and shouldn't be forgotten today.

GF Willmetts

Magazine > Book reviews

Just in | Library of book reviews

Add daily news updates to your own web site or blog - just cut and paste the code below...


This book has 518 votes in the sci-fi charts

The all-new SFcrowsnest is now running at This is now the archive for pre-2012 content. Nothing new is being posted here.

Magazine Articles

- Features

- Movie/TV Reviews

- Book Reviews

- News

- E-mail magazine

- Encyclopedia

- Other formats: Kindle, Nook, Sony Ebook, iPhone & iPod


- Top books

- Top movies/tv series


- SciFi @ FaceBook

- Steampunk @ FaceBook

- Us @ Google+


- Search site

Reader Tools

- RSS news feed

- Facebook page for SFcrowsnest

- Twitter page for SFcrowsnest

- Google toolbar for SFcrowsnest

Webmaster Tools

- Add our content feeds to your site