TT: Shoemaker to the Stars

JANE: The other day I was trying to explain to a friend why I really loved Cordwainer Smith’s work.  I used words like “different,” “weird,” “off-beat,” “provocative,” but those are all sort of empty.  I’m frustrated because I’d like to be able to explain why periodically I go and re-read his stuff; why I was disproportionately flattered when I took an on-line quiz and the author I was compared to was Cordwainer Smith.  I know you like his work as well, and I was hoping that maybe you could help me.

Cordwainer Smith’s Short Stories

ALAN: I’ll try – but it’s not easy. When I lived in Wellington I belonged to a book discussion group where we recommended books to each other. One of the books I introduced to the group was Cordwainer Smith’s novel Norstrilia and rather to my surprise I found myself reduced to inarticulacy when I tried to describe it. Like you, I could only use empty words, concluding with “…the strangest story I’ve ever read.”

JANE: I was first introduced to Cordwainer Smith’s work by Roger Zelazny.  He used to mail me books – sometimes by the box load – by authors whose work he admired.  One of these was a collection of Corwainer Smith’s short stories.  He mentioned that “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was one of his favorite SF stories of all time, so I read that first, turned back to the first story “Scanners Live in Vain,” and was hooked for all time.

These days, especially with you having written a book review column for many years, it’s hard to imagine you rendered inarticulate by any author.  How old were you at that book group discussion?

ALAN: Quite old – it was only a couple of years ago! But I first came across Smith’s stories when I was in my teens. In some collection or other (probably one of Judith Merril’s Best SF of the Year anthologies – I was hunting them down obsessively at  the time) I found the short story “A Planet Named Shayol” and it made a huge impression on me, so much so that I returned to it time and time again.

JANE: Oh…  That’s a creepy story.  Let’s issue an official Spoiler Alert and talk about it!

ALAN: Mercer has been sentenced to the punishment planet Shayol for some unnamed crime. All that anyone knows about the planet is that the screams of the prisoners are broadcast across the Empire on the Emperor’s birthday. So he knows he is in for a terrible punishment…

Mercer is met on the planet’s surface by B’dikkat, an underperson whose ancestors were cows.

JANE: Let me interrupt you to clarify a point…  In Cordwainer Smith’s universe, “Underperson” means a person whose ancestors were genetically modified animals.  The details of how this was done is never gone into that I remember, but the underpeople and their relationship with normal humans is an important element in much of Cordwainer Smith’s work.

Okay… Go on.

ALAN: B’dikkat always wears armour to shield himself from the attentions of the dromozoa, minute insect-like beings that burrow agonizingly into flesh and cause extra organs to grow on the body.  But Mercer and the other prisoners have no such protection. Mercer comes across people with extra limbs, noses, eyes and even whole torsos attached to them. B’dikkat harvests these organs and they are shipped off planet to be used in transplant surgery.  In order to keep the prisoners relatively sane and healthy, B’dikkat injects them with super-condamine, the ultimate drug that makes the depredations of the dromozoa almost bearable.

Decades, even centuries pass slowly and nothing changes for the prisoners until one day the planet comes to the attention of the Lords of the Instrumentality. Then finally things change, but not necessarily for the better. Though that perhaps depends on your point of view…

JANE: Ah, the Lords of the Instrumentality.  That’s definitely something we need to come back to since this mysterious group is another of the key underpinnings that connect Cordwainer Smith’s stories.

ALAN: Yes indeed. When I came across them in this story I considered them to be a benevolent power for good. But after reading other stories in which they played a part, I changed my mind about their role.

There’s what I now think of as an obvious pun in the title of this story though when I first read it I was far too young to make the correspondence between “Sheol” and “Shayol”. Indeed I don’t think I’d even come across the word “Sheol” then. So some of the cleverness of Smith’s vision escaped me. But that didn’t matter – there was always so much else going on in the story. Who cared if you missed a layer or two?

I think it was that richness in the material that kept me coming back to it. There were always subtleties to explore and ambiguities that failed to resolve themselves. It was perfectly clear to me that this was just one small corner of a picture painted on a much larger canvas. The protagonists in the story (and presumably Smith himself) knew a lot more than they let on to the reader about what was going on in the universe at large. Things that they themselves took for granted obviously did not need explaining and so there were always unanswered questions, and that sneaking feeling in the back of my mind that maybe just one more reading would help clear it up…

JANE: I’ve had the same reaction!

ALAN: And then there was the style of the telling of the tale. I’d never met sentences like that before, or stories told in that way. I learned later that Paul Linebarger (Cordwainer Smith’s real name) had been an orientalist of renown and that his stories were often styled and structured in a manner derived from Chinese literature. Though later I discovered that “A Planet Named Shayol” had a comparatively straightforward narrative when compared to some of his other stories. But whatever the truth of it, this story grabbed hold of me and refused to let go. To this day, I absolutely love Smith’s work to bits.

JANE: Me, too.  I’d really enjoy chattering on more about it.  How about next week?

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