Tobias Buckell: Cordwainer Smith’s Otherwordly Stories

Tobias S. Buckell
photo: Marlon James

I’ve known Tobias Buckell for several years now, ever since a mutual friend alerted me to his first two novels, Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin. His new collection, Xenowealth, gathers together a number of stories set in the same world as those novels, a future where humanity has settled on other planets, but the cultures that have shaped those settlements aren’t the usual American/Western European templates seen in so much science fiction. When Tobias sent me this essay, I was delighted to see that he was writing about Cordwainer Smith; like him, I was entranced by my very first reading of Smith growing up in the ’80s, but for many years it was next to impossible to find any of his work without diligently hunting through the sci-fi sections of used bookstores… or in the way that he fell into Tobias’s hands.

I have an odd education in that I didn’t have really good access to solid libraries and bookstores growing up. That’s because I grew up on a boat in the Caribbean. So what books I got my hands on were often loaned to me by sailors coming through on boats from places far afield. I met people from the South Pacific, Europe, Africa, the Americas all passing through the harbor I grew up in.

They had these little mini-libraries in marinas or off in the corners here and there. Libraries that were just denoted by a sign that said “take a book, leave a book.” And once I had enough books, I prowled these limited shelves, poring over them for any science fiction or fantasy.

It was rare to find anthologies, but these were always treasured because they had a wide range of instant text nuggets. Stories could vary wildly, from prosaic to mind-blowing, in a single page turn. So when I came across a collection of stories by one Cordwainer Smith I wasn’t sure what I was going to get. The book looked old, which was always worrying. I was reading in the late 1980s. The golden age stuff could be fun, but usually read unintentionally funny to me, which its square-jawed, omnicompetent men and 1950s sf-nal vocabulary.

So here’s this story, “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” that starts off: “Pinlighting is a hell of a way to earn a living.” Humans throw themselves into space, “planoforming” ships skipping through the dark, and begin descended upon by what they perceive as dragons. But to their companion cats, thrown out as attack fighters, they’re rats.

Describing the story makes it sound cheesy. What’s amazing isn’t the story itself, but Cordwainer Smith’s delivery. The hints of “the Instrumentality” that run human civilization. The strange timelessness of the technology when so much older SF dated. To this day Smith still goes toe to toe due to a sense of mythicness (Mother Hubbard’s Littul Kittens), describing how things were used and impacted the people, but not trying to over explain. It was fresh, and until I hit cyberpunk writers in my wanderings, the deft retellings and unexplored greater mythic stuff off in the background intrigued me for a long time. I spent a lot of time in high school trying to figure Smith out.

Not sure I ever did. Cordwainer Smith was a pen name for Paul Linebarger, and his real life career as a diplomat, a childhood acquaintance of Sun Yat-sen, as well as his role as an early developer of early psychological warfare and more, seems even more science fictional than the things he wrote.

Smith’s experiences with studying the mind, traveling the globe, and growing up in a culture (an original 3rd culture child, I’d hazard) outside the U.S. gave him the ability to both wield the nascent genre of SF and bring to it a dynamic perspective that ran counter to a lot of what was going on. As someone growing up on the intersection between Western worlds and the Caribbean, I found it particularly resonant.

18 January 2016 | selling shorts |