The Remakable Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith

A Cordwainer Smith Panel Discussion

The panel at a Cordwainer Smith discussion in 2001

At Philcon, August/ Sept 2001: Tony Lewis of NESFA, Ralph Benko of the Cordwainer Smith Foundation, Robert Silverberg, Scott Edelman, Gardner Dozois, Eleanor Lang, James Patrick Kelly, CS scholar and Foundation member Alan C. Elms, and Smith's daughter Rosana Hart (me) were the panel members... Alan is hidden behind Jim Kelly. (Silverberg, Edelman, Dozois and John Clute were the judges for the Cordwainer Smith award.)

This event took place at the only Worldcon I have ever attended, and it was a thrill to realize how much these people loved my father's works. When I told Bob Silverberg that I had had no idea that Cordwainer Smith's influence on science fiction was so great, Bob grinned and said, "The family is the last to know." (See also Bob's remarks when he announced the first Rediscovery Award and spoke about CS.)

Here are some excerpts from the panel's comments:

Robert Silverberg [about the Cordwainer Smith award]:

Most of the great science fiction of past years has gone out of print... It's our hope not to just give out shiny pieces of plastic but to have thousands of people in the audience say, "Well, if they think that X or Y is that good, maybe we should find out what X or Y wrote." Sometimes writer X or Y is still well known by name but nobody is reading the books, and we hope to remedy that.

Scott Edelman:
For me the stories of Cordwainer Smith really represent the heart of what the best science fiction was. They embodied certain elements that we hope to be pointing to with the awards: the sense of wonder and awe and vastness and empire and so forth. It was amazing to come upon them between the pages of one book, which is how I came upon them.

One of the things which the award is attempting to do in honor of the life and the work of Cordwainer Smith is to point toward those writers who also embody those aspects of science fiction that we hold dear.

There really are twin purposes for the award. The judges are also empowered to look at the field today and if they decide that there is someone working in the same vein that Cordwainer Smith did, they can reward and point out that person. I have this feeling that sometimes the field of science fiction stays too close to earth, too close to the day after tomorrow, and people seem to be afraid of straying too far into the future, too vast and too wide—though there are people doing it today.

That is something that was discussed by those who created the award: both looking back at those writers who should be rediscovered and looking forward to help encourage the careers of those writers who work in a similar vein.

Gardner Dozois:
Cordwainer Smith was one of the writers whose work really impressed me the most when I was a young writer. There's a rich sense of strangeness in his work that is really unlike anything else that was being done at the time, and it impressed me.

For those of you who are familiar with my own work, I know it's hard to see it— but I believe the influence of Cordwainer Smith on me was perhaps greater than that of any other writer of the time.

He helped us to understand that the future was not going to be like the present, which I think is one of the key insights in science fiction, that the future is going to be radically and completely different from the present, that the people who live in it are not going to be us wearing crone hats and funny tights ... that's one of the most valuable insights I think that science fiction can give us and it's nowhere embodied better than in the work of Cordwainer Smith.

He was so far ahead of his time that in situ his work was sometimes nearly incomprehensible. The stories look actually much easier to understand 30 years down the line.

Unlike Scott, I did have the privilege of seeing some of these stories appear in the magazines. When he died, I remember I didn't quite cry because I was a tough young soldier. I was serving overseas and when I got the copy of Galaxy that had a little black border notice saying that Cordwainer Smith had died, I remember stopping and feeling my eyes mist over a little, because even though I had never met him, his work was incredibly important to me. It really was a tragedy that there was not going to be anything more of his. However, his influence cast an enormous shadow into the future, and considering all of the writers that he has influenced strongly, he will continue to cast a long shadow deep into the future of science fiction.

One of the things you need to go to the website for are some really cool family photographs of Cordwainer Smith, which are something I had never seen anywhere before. One I found intriguing was one of the cat on whom the character C'Mell was based. I really enjoyed that.

Eleanor Lang:
For those of you who don't know me, I was instrumental in the formation of Del Ray's Impact line, which is a line that reprints older and seminal and out of print works in the field....The history of this field is very important but it's not important in the way of historic artifacts. It's important to resurrect many of these works as vibrant vital things that have a lot to offer now. There are so many deserving works that really could find a new audience, new people to influence, new people to move.

James Patrick Kelly:
I actually didn't expect to be up here. I thought I would be out there like you guys, looking up and saying "This is really cool." But I'm up here because I'm a big Cordwainer Smith fan.

I remember exactly when I read him for the first time. I was probably 12 or 13. I went to visit my grandmother with my brother, and while I was there I got sick. It was the summertime, and Grandma took Steve out to the swimming pool and I was left home. She didn't have television or maybe she got one station, but she said, "Here are your uncle's science fiction books, you go ahead and see if you want to read some of this." Okay.

I picked up.. it would have been a '63 or '64 Judith Merrill Best of the Year collection. I don't remember any other stories in there. I'm sure there are some wonderful stories, but the story I do remember is "A Planet Named Shayol." And I'm sitting there with a toothache and a headache and, and feeling pretty miserable, waiting for the aspirin to kick in, and I start reading this story. And this is where the sense of wonder first bloomed in me. I can still see Go-Captain Alvarez and Mercer and Dowager Lady Da.

My 13-year-old imagination became ecstatic with the idea that there are strangenesses, beautiful, that can be expressed in words, and that you can't get anywhere else but in this kind of thing. And so that afternoon lying on the couch brings me to sit up here.

I'm sure there are lots of great people to be rediscovered. Cordwainer Smith should actually be the first one.. I teach, and I mention Cordwainer Smith and people say, "Oh yeah, the guy with the name."

The body of his work that we remember him for is short stories. Norstrilia is a fine piece of work, but what we really remember him for are short stories. The burden of narrative exposition that he bears in every short story, to take you so far to the future, and yet not to stop and say, "Well, as we know, the other people are these people and the Instrumentality" and all that. You're just in there and you're swimming and he trusts you to go along with him. And at the end of a sometimes 5000 word short story, you've been in the future and in a complex imaginative future with real characters and situations that will stretch your mind.. This is the kind of the kind of thing that I think science fiction was designed to do, and he was I think perhaps the ultimate of far future science fiction writers.

Alan Elms:
I am working on a biography of Cordwainer Smith.... I've been working on it for a while. In terms of frequently asked questions about the biography, the most frequently asked is, "When are you going to finish it?" I guess I could say that I am closer to finishing it this year than I was last year.

Some of you may have wondered why there is a CS Rediscovery Award... one reason is that the rediscovery of man was an important concept in science fiction , the idea that sometime in a far future, there will be a point where either the Instrumentality decides or other people decide that some major aspects of world culture have been lost and need to be rediscovered. The other reason is that indeed Cordwainer Smith himself has gone through several stages of rediscovery. He was a very popular writer in the 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in Galaxy Magazine. Then after his death, his popularity faded. He was essentially rediscovered by a lot of people when new editions came out—he was referred to as a cult writer at that time. I suppose there was a small cult. Then when the Ballantine editions themselves went out of print, he faded again. And then, for a number of serious science fiction fans, his reputation was restored when he was brought back into print by the NESFA Press editions of the stories.

Bob Silverberg:
I did come in at the beginning with Cordwainer Smith's fiction. I remember reading "Scanners Live in Vain," in Fantasybook and being utterly astounded by it. It was about five years until the next one appeared, which was "The Game of Rat and Dragon" in Galaxy, and with that the pace picked up. The word went out that Cordwainer Smith was a pseudonym, which we probably could have figured out, but we had no idea who it was and there were guessing games played that came to nothing, and I finished off with the half-serious supposition, somewhere after seven or eight Cordwainer Smith stories had appeared, that he was a time traveler stranded in the twentieth century, and was simply telling us tales of his own time. That was why he didn't bother to explain any of the background information—it was all fresh and clear to him.

Then later all sorts of information about this guy named Linebarger came out, and now we know a great deal about him, although there's still more to learn. He would be a perfectly good candidate himself for the Cordwainer Smith award but for the incestuous nature of passing it right across the aisle from one hand to the other!

The merit of a Rediscovery Award from Cordwainer Smith is of course the theme of rediscovery of man, that that which is forgotten can easily be brought back and reinterpreted and understood. The important point about not losing the past of science fiction is that it's a usable past, that the great science fiction serves as a guide for the newer writers....Young writers inevitably model their work on earlier examples and if the exemplars are themselves garbage, then you're only going to get inferior garbage. And therefore it's essential that masterpieces of science fiction be kept available as templates for the newer writers... This Award, I think, will help to accelerate that process.

There's no point in imitating Cordwainer Smith; secondhand Cordwainer Smith is worthless. We have the real thing, we know what it's like, and anybody imitating it just looks silly. But there is a kind of influence that goes into the roots of creativity... nobody who has written science fiction since the 1960s has failed to take into account Cordwainer Smith, just as Heinlein reshaped everything in the 1940s.

Tony Lewis:
I read my first Cordwainer Smith story when it came out, I think in a Fred Pohl anthology. I read to the end of the story, turned back to the beginning and read it again. I looked for more stories by this author, but there weren't any. Finally, when "The Game of Rat and Dragon" came out, I said, "I read something by this man before, because no-one else writes like this.... Cordwainer Smith? Yes! "Scanners Live in Vain." We're going to have more Cordwainer Smith stories." At that time I didn't know, I didn't have the terminology, but his stories are mosaics, not linear. He'll write something, and in order to understand it, you'll have to read a story he was going to write five years later. What he wrote was the first hyperlink novel! This is what led us to doing the Concordances. "Look at this neat thing, great games are being played with these names. Look, this is a trilingual pun! You have to know German and Arabic and English to understand why this is really funny." [Tony is author of Concordance to Cordwainer Smith.]

I think this mosaic, the non-linearity of the stories is one of the things that really attracts us to them. He was very early, a pioneer, in some ways too early. Atomsk is what we now call a techno-thriller. It was written twenty-five years too early. Had it been written later, it would have been acclaimed as well, the sort of thing that Tom Clancy made millions out of! The seeds fell on ground that hadn't been ploughed and fertilized yet, as it were.

At NESFA Press we decided we were going to reprint old science fiction writers. This grew out of a series of panels at our convention. We discussed Cordwainer Smith, Kornbluth, and others. The new people would say, "This sounds great! Where can we get copies of the stories to read?" And the answer was, "You can't, because you don't have issues of 1940s Astounding in your basement." And they said, "Why don't you reprint them?" The Cordwainer Smith books have been the among the most popular of all the old books we have done.

Ralph Benko:
I was involved in science fiction about 30 years ago as a fan. Personally, I think a lot of the Linebarger dynasty. Paul Linebarger's father, Judge Paul Myron Wentworth Linebarger, was involved in the overthrow of the Chinese Empire with Sun Yat Sen, the great Chinese revolutionary so he was a kind of proto-Hans Solo figure. By the way, he was also a pulp fiction writer in his spare time, though I have yet to read any copies of his work.

There's just tremendous vitality to the vision of Cordwainer Smith. Had politics taken a slightly different turn, if Senator Taft had been nominated for President instead of Thomas E. Dewey, and if he had beaten Truman, then Paul Linebarger would probably have been US Secretary of State. The vitality of the intellect here is unique. We're given a terrific literary legacy, as well as the political legacy... He anticipated so many things that are happening.

At the end of this year or early next year, the Planetary Society is going to be launching the first planetary solar sailship, and Cordwainer Smith was the author of the first solar sailship story. The Planetary Society decided to include a copy of that story on this, the first interstellar space program. The fact that they are including "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul"—along with Arthur C. Clarke's "Wind from the Sun," which came out a few years later—is a mark, I think, of how well he anticipated our own era.

I want to acknowledge Corby Waste. He's a graphic artist at JPL and he's been doing illustrations of Cordwainer Smith. Some of these will debut soon on the website. He also does some three-dimensional work that's very good. He was also the leader in getting the Planetary Society to agree to include "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul" as part of the payload.

I also want to thank Jim Mann and everyone at NESFA. We're very much in your debt for keeping Cordwainer Smith in print. [sustained audience applause]

Rosana Hart:
I've received several emails at the website, saying "Oh, you're so LUCKY!! He was your Dad!" Well, if you think about that mind, and you picture young innocent children, you will understand that it wasn't easy. It was never dull, ever, but I remember going to Mexico in 1952, when I was almost ten, and learning more about the tortures that the Spaniards inflicted on the Indians than most ten-year-olds had a clue about. I've come to appreciate him more as I've gotten older and been able to integrate more of the amazing overload of data that got dumped on me as a kid. He was a lot of father!

One thing I remember is that he would talk to anybody. Somebody wrote something that called him 'the reclusive Cordwainer Smith,' and I got a big belly laugh out of it. While he did keep his real name away from the fans, I remember standing with him in a dry-cleaning establishment when I was about twelve as he said to this overworked, harassed dry-cleaning worker who was trying to find our stuff, "I'm a college professor myself." He proceeded to run down his biography to this guy, and I was both mortified and proud of my father for being so outgoing. Now my sister calls me a world-class extrovert, so I guess I got quite a bit of that from my father. I was also at the age when anything your parents do is at least a little suspect.

[Question from audience: Do you remember when you first read something by your father, and what did you think of it?]

No, I don't remember the first story. I do remember when "A Planet Named Shayol" came out, I was really pissed off. The name I was given at birth was Johanna Lesley Linebarger. He'd given me the name Johanna and then he took it back and used it in a story without even asking me.

I'm not a fan, you know... it's the water that the fish swims in. That's my atmosphere. It's like, "Do you remember when you took your first breath?" No, I don't. He was always a wonderful raconteur, so Cordwainer Smith or Paul Linebarger telling stories was just part of life. Some of them were very funny, though some that he thought were very funny were flat to me.

Another thing I remember is that little bits of conversation, say from the breakfast table, turn up in the stories here and there. And that always used to tickle me. I'd think, "Oh, that's how he gets his ideas, he just pulls them out of everywhere."

Atomsk is one of my favorites, and that may have been the first thing I read.

[Question: How many languages did Cordwainer Smith know?]

I think he used to say thirteen.

Alan Elms:
About twenty years ago, I first interviewed Rosana and her sister Marcia, and one of them said, "My father is the most complex man I ever met." I thought this was an interesting thing for a daughter to be saying about her father, but clearly it's true!

[Question from audience: What was his take on science fiction? He was writing the stuff.. Did he read it?]

He read it massively. He had one of the most extensive collections of science fiction of anybody in the world at that time.

[Question about the notebooks he left at his death.]

The notebooks are really just notes. The surviving notebooks do have some material about stories that he never got around to, and some notes about stories he did actually write. The one notebook that was lost and still is lost, somebody has offered a substantial reward for it. It presumably has a good deal about the background of the Instrumentality.

[Question: Are there any completed but unpublished drafts?]

There are a few early semi-science fiction, semi-fantasy stories. There are a couple of novels which are more like Atomsk.

[Later note from Rosana: Several of us have since read the unpublished material and come to the conclusion that there is good reason it's unpublished. It's just not that good.]


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 The Blog
 His Books
 The Rediscovery of Man, by Cordwainer Smith
 Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith
 Atomsk, by Carmichael Smith
 Ria, by Felix C. Forrest
 Carola, by Felix C. Forrest
 Psychological Warfare, by Paul M. A. Linebarger
 Letters from Paul, by Paul M. A. Linebarger
 Letters from Paul: One Letter
 Books about His Science Fiction
 Concordance to Cordwainer Smith, by Anthony Lewis
 The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, by Karen Hellekson
 Exploring Cordwainer Smith, Booklet by Andrew Porter
 Where You Can Get Books
 Cordwainer Smith at Amazon
 Cordwainer Smith at Alibris
 Cordwainer Smith at AbeBooks
 Cordwainer Smith on eBay
 Cordwainer Smith, the Author
 A Cordwainer Smith Panel Discussion
 Scholarly Corner, by Alan C. Elms
 What Other Science Fiction Authors Say
 What Readers Say
 Paul M. A. Linebarger, the Man
 Family Photos
 A Daughter's Memories
 Was Paul Linebarger Kirk Allen?
 His Arlington National Cemetery Bio and My Comments
 Rosana's Ramblings
 Rambling 1: Shakespeare Had It Wrong
 Rambling 2: The Return of C'mell, Sort Of
 Art Inspired by Cordwainer Smith
 Virgil Finlay
 Pierre Lacombe
 Craig Moore
 Corby Waste
 Annual Rediscovery Award
 2012 Fredric Brown
 2011 Katherine MacLean
 2010 Mark Clifton
 2009 A. Merritt
 2008 Stanley G. Weinbaum
 2007 Daniel F Galouye
 2006 William Hope Hodgson
 2005 Leigh Brackett
 Leigh Brackett: Her Biography
 2004 Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
 2003 Edgar Pangborn
 2002 R. A. Lafferty
 2001 Olaf Stapledon
 Cordwainer Smith Foundation
 Cordwainer Smith T-Shirts
 Cordwainer Smith: Other Online Resources
 Contact Us
 Illustrated Bibliography, by Mike Bennett
 Introduction to the Illustrated Bibliography
 All the Stories and All the Books
 Chronological Book List
 Magazine Covers
 Book Covers
 Book Covers: Best of Cordwainer Smith
 Book Covers: Instrumentality of Mankind
 Book Covers: Norstrilia
 Book Covers: Planet Buyer
 Book Covers: Rediscovery of Man
 Book Covers: Quest of the Three Worlds
 Book Covers: Space Lords
 Book Covers: Stardreamer
 Book Covers: Under Old Earth
 Book Covers: Underpeople
 Book Covers: You Will Never Be the Same
 Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger - Chronology
 Press Releases
 2008 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award Goes to Stanley G. Weinbaum
 2002: About the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award
 2001: First Rediscovery Award Ceremony
 2001: Creation of Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award