Ray Gun Reviews
SF/F reviews — and ray guns!

When the People Fell by Cordwainer Smith

(Note: This review originally appeared in Ray Gun Revival 48, Dec 2008)


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When the People Fell by Cordwainer Smith
Baen Books, 2007, 599pp

The readers of Ray Gun Revival do not need to be told that there’s a renaissance of Space Opera going on; we’re busy being a part of it. A true renaissance has two aspects: a burst of creativity, yes, but one inspired by the best of the past. The amazing blossoming of culture in the sixteenth century was due to the rediscovery of the classical world. If our own Space Opera renaissance is to achieve an analogous depth and influence, we need to re-examine and re-appropriate the classics of the genre.

Editors David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer have masterfully pointed the way in their massive effort, The Space Opera Renaissance. But where is the interested reader to go whose interest has been piqued by the short stories in that volume? We are very fortunate in the case of Cordwainer Smith to have his fiction re-issued in two volumes by Baen Books: We the Underpeople and When the People Fell, the latter volume being the subject of this present review.

Cordwainer Smith was the pen-name for Dr. Paul Linebarger, polyglot professor of international studies and author of the textbook Psychological Warfare. His stories demonstrate his interest not only in war, but in the workings of the human mind and soul. Smith’s knowledge of oriental literature (not only was he was fluent in Chinese, but was the godson of the founder of the Chinese Republic, Sun Yat-sen) gives his stories a fascinating narrative color. The influence of non-Western narratives and the intertextuality of the stories, the majority of which refer either to each other or to a more-or-less coherent vision of the future, give Smith’s stories a surprisingly contemporary, even postmodern feel. Someone writing Space Opera can learn a lot from Cordwainer Smith.

Plus the stories are darn good fun.

Smith’s science fiction (with the exception of a handful of stories, included in When the People Fell) takes place in an interconnected future history ranging from the present day to roughly A.D. 16,000. The stories are all connected through the ruling body of humanity known as the Instrumentality. Two of the main starting places of Smith’s stories are the psychological effects of the immensity of space on the human person, and the effects of genetic engineering on human history and on what it means to be human—themes that again highlight Smith’s contemporary relevance. We the Underpeople contains the stories focusing on Smith’s more anthropological themes, including the short novel Norstrillia, and the important “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” and “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell.”

When the People Fell contains the stories that focus on space exploration and war in space. In addition to the six “Miscellaneous Stories” that lie outside the Instrumentality series, the volume contains twenty-two stories set in Smith’s future history. The stories are arranged in roughly chronological order, according to John J. Pierce’s ordering of the stories in the Instrumentality series. Every piece in When the People Fell is worth reading, though some of the stories will have the greatest interest to people already familiar with Smith’s work. (“Mark Elf” and “The Queen of the Afternoon,” for example, explain the origin of the Vomact name.)

Some of the stories are true science fiction classics. Of the stories not to be missed in When the People Fell are “Scanners Live in Vain,” “The Lady Who Sailed The Soul,” “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal,” “Golden the Ship Was—Oh! Oh! Oh!” and “A Planet Named Shayol.” Readers of Jack Vance will not want to miss the Casher O’Neill “novella-in-stories”: “On the Gem Planet,” “On the Storm Planet,” “On the Sand Planet,” and “Three to a Given Star.” The other stories in When the People Fell are not mere filler, but I want to highlight these stories for their emotional impact and unique narrative style.

I am still astounded by Smith’s narrative ability. Few people would dare start a story with the sentence, “Do not read this story; turn the page quickly.” Yet such is the first line of “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal.” I do not think I give anything away by giving the last two sentences: “That’s the story. Furthermore, it isn’t true.” It’s everything in the middle that’s important—but what a framework for that middle!

People already familiar with Smith will find When the People Fell to contain stories that will complete their collection. And people new to Smith are in for a treat; I envy them their first time reading this unique voice in science fiction. When the People Fell does unfortunately contain a few signs of hasty proofreading, but what book doesn’t these days? The people at Baen are to be highly commended for making the stories of Cordwainer Smith available to a new generation.

On to the Rediscovery of Man!

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)

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