One of the stranger experiences I keep having is reading the works of “minor” (by which I mean that you’re not going to go into a random bookstore and find a big pile of their books) writers from Ye Olde Days of Science Fiction, writers like R.A. Lafferty and Avram Davidson. After reading Cordwainer Smith’s The Rediscovery of Man , a collection of short stories from NESFA Press, I’m adding Smith to this list of unexpected writers.
The thing is, when I was growing up, I read a lot of Asimov. I mean, a lot of Asimov. All his novels, obviously; probably all his short stories, most of them multiple times (as they were collected in overlapping, but not quite identical, collections); and even piles of his non-fiction. And I’ve read Heinlein’s short stories, and a bunch of Clarke, and... well, you know. All the big names. And those guys have a certain style in common, a very dry and rationalist matter-of-fact approach. Lots of characters who are scientists, lots of technical problems, lots of physics and chemistry. After a while, I naturally have come to think that this is just what old-timey SF was.
And then I go and read a book like The Rediscovery of Man. Smith (whose biography is frankly unbelievable) is writing a grand future history, like a lot of those other guys; but his history, like his prose, is more lyrical and Romantic than those of Asimov and Heinlein. Consider deep space: In a traditional hard SF story, it’s a dangerous place because of the iron laws of physics. In Smith’s universe, it’s a dangerous place because it’s haunted by ancient enemies and dark mysteries that drive men mad.
My only criticism of this volume isn’t of the stories, but the organization. Rather than ordering the stories by publication date, the editors arranged the stories in internal chronological order. This arguably makes them build into a more coherent story (though it’s only semi-coherent; the stories don’t necessarily agree entirely with each other), but it obscures the development of Smith’s writing, and leads to the occasional reveal without impact (”Her son would become Lord So-and-so” when we haven’t yet read the earlier-published story about the doings of Lord So-and-so, for instance). I think the ideal arrangement would have been to have the stories in publication order, but with a timeline of internal chronology to minimize confusion.
At any rate, this is really excellent stuff, well-written and original; if you like Vance, Lafferty, Davidson, or Lem, you owe it to yourself to check this out.