A Cordwainer Smith Panel Discussion
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 cordwainer-smith.com 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
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]
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
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
I think he used to say thirteen.
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
[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
There are a few early semi-science fiction, semi-fantasy
stories. There are a couple of novels which are more like
[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.]