Monday, October 22, 2012

We the Underpeople, by Cordwainer Smith


This collection includes five short stories and one full-length novel by Cordwainer Smith, all of which take place in his Instrumentality of Mankind universe and involve 'underpeople'--humanoid creatures derived from animals for the purpose of completing various menial and/or skilled tasks. These underpeople look like human beings, more or less (some retain certain animalian features--noses, whiskers, unusual size, etc.) and have enhanced mental abilities, but at root they are still dogs, cats, bulls, birds, and so on and think accordingly. They are also treated accordingly--that is, treated like animals. And in many cases, worse than animals, for there are rules against caring for sick or injured underpeople; it is easier--and more economically sensible--to just destroy them.

This universe, then, is peopled by true humans, who now have pretty much nothing to do other than run the political worlds (and even that is done only by a few powerful individuals). The underpeople (and robots--there must always be robots) handle almost all the tasks, chores, and other jobs that need doing. Coupled with the complete victory of medical science over illness and the discovery of the life-lengthening drug 'stroon', this means that people live a standard 400 years completely free from danger, hardship, illness, or anything else that might impede their happiness. In fact, they're so consistently happy that they're dying of boredom and misery. Meanwhile, the underpeople are becoming increasingly self-aware and are uniting in an effort to establish their rights.

This is the world Cordwainer Smith has created. He has also created the name Cordwainer Smith, which is a pseudonym. His real name was Paul Linebarger, and he had a variety of day jobs (professor of Asian studies, military strategist, psychological warfare specialist, foreign policy expert, etc.) that limited his ability to produce much in the way of science fiction. What he did produce has been lauded as both excellent and unique. His best-known work--a short story entitled 'Scanners Live in Vain'--is not included in this particular collection, but the stories here are still well worth reading. The stories include:
  • 'The Dead Lady of Clown Town', in which we learn of the underperson D'joan (derived from a dog, hence the 'D' prefix) who first preached to the underpeople that love makes us human, and if they love, they can be--and are--human themselves. 
  • 'Under Old Earth', in which one of the Lords of the Instrumentality (aka a Big Kahuna) chooses death and adventure over continued long life and thereby saves the world from destruction.
  • 'Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons', in which we witness the extremely effective defense system of Old North Australia (or 'Nostrilia'), whereby the planet preserves itself (and the life-giving stroon it produces) from would-be plunderers and attackers.
  • 'Alpha Ralpha Boulevard', in which the Instrumentality has begun the 'Rediscovery of Man', wherein they re-inject danger into society, along with disparate languages, cultures, and other such old-fashioned practices in an effort to combat humanity's increasing listlessness and apathy. Also, there is a computer that tells your fortune.
  • 'The Battle of Lost C'mell', in which a cat-girl (C'mell) and a Lord of the Instrumentality agree to join forces to seek the welfare of the underpeople--and, by extension, all of mankind--and an underperson discovers she can fall in love with a human.
The novel that follows these stories, Nostrilia, tells the story of Rod McBan, the telepathically-disabled-yet-also-telepathically-gifted resident of Old North Australia who bought the planet Earth (following a night of risky and, as it turned out, extremely lucrative, purchases and trades of stroon futures). He soon finds himself the target of an assassination attempt, and is forced to flee to his newly-acquired planet, where he encounters the lovely C'mell, various Lords (and Ladies) of the Instrumentality, and a tremendously powerful underperson who wants Rod's help with the underpeople's cause.

Cordwainer Smith is an extremely competent--albeit unusual--writer. People who know much more about it than I do say that his narrative style is more similar to traditional Chinese stories than it is to most English language fiction. And it makes sense--his father was closely connected to the Chinese revolution of 1911, and Linebarger knew a heckuva lot about Asia (or, at any rate, enough to teach about it at both Duke and Johns Hopkins). My familiarity with traditional Chinese literature is precisely nil, but there is a spartan-yet-aesthetic quality to his prose that reminds me of much of the Japanese style.

I was also reminded, on more than one occasion, of sci-fi author/humorist Douglas Adams. I can't pinpoint the precise reason for this feeling--Cordwainer Smith's work is far from comedic. It can be humorous, but it is never broad. Yet there is a flavor there that is reminiscent of Adams. Perhaps it is the abrupt changes of scene with their almost ridiculous sense of contrast, or perhaps it is the blunt, almost disconnected feel of the various sets of characters and unresolved plot threads, or perhaps it's the deus ex machina plotlines that somehow ensure that the actions taken by those characters inexorably move the story forward toward a predetermined (yet also rather arbitrary) end point. Or maybe the clueless-yet-central Rod McBan reminded me of Arthur Dent. Whatever the reason, there was a quality of Adams lurking behind the story that makes me wonder if Adams read much Cordwainer Smith as a boy.

But enough about the style and flavor and potential influence of Cordwainer Smith. You want to know if his work is worth reading. It is. The short stories have a folk quality about them, which contrasts nicely with the science fiction content--they feel like the written documentation of a slightly incomplete oral history of a future political/social movement, which is in fact precisely what they are intended to be. Each short story leaves the reader feeling vaguely unsettled or even disturbed (the sure sign of effective short form literature)--they capture an unusual idea or event and then end, leaving the reader to decide how he or she feels about that idea or event. The novel provides a more satisfactory conclusion (as a novel should), but was still bizarre and slightly confusing without being annoying. By which I mean I never quite got the feeling that I'd wrapped my head around the whole of the plot, but I still had enough of the gist of it to follow along. Which works well, since this is supposed to be a future history, and as such would take for granted a certain amount of knowledge that I, as a resident of the current past, would simply not have.

And that's not even scratching the substantive surface--the ideas Cordwainer Smith sets forth merit a lengthy discussion. (For an analysis of some of those issues, see Dr. Coyle Neal's review on Schaeffer's Ghost.)

All in all, this is an excellent book, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. I can't remember the last time 600 pages breezed by so fast. 

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