07 September 2012

Short SF&F Week: When the People Fell by Cordwainer Smith

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2007 (contents: 1950-75)
Acquired June 2012

Read August 2012
When the People Fell
by Cordwainer Smith

I got this book in a Baen eBook Bundle-- for paying twice as much as I'd pay to get one book, I got five. I dimly knew Cordwainer Smith as someone who wrote classic sf, but I didn't have very specific memories of him except enjoying "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal."  This book-- which collects about about half of Smith's short fiction, most of it set in the "Instrumentality of Mankind" future history-- won me over in short order. Even when the stories aren't plot- or character-interesting, the ideas are amazing and lyrical, the prose completely unlike anything else from 1950s sf, the narratives playful with stories layered inside stories. I mean, I love Isaac Asimov, but it's hard to imagine that at the same time that he was churning out robot and Foundation tales, Smith had come up with something as distinctive as this.

It's enough to make me do a story-by-story review, something I don't do much anymore.

"No, No, Not Rogov!"
One of several  World War II-centric stories in the book, this is about a pair of Soviet scientists, their keepers, and the machine they built to read American brainwaves that connected them to something they couldn't have imagined. There's a tragedy of repression and detachment here, hidden under a (perfectly) perfunctory style.

"War No. 81-Q" (Rewritten Version)
In the future, wars are licensed and no one dies. The elaborate mechanics of this premise make the story a delightful and imaginative read, no matter what it actually does with the premise.

"Mark Elf" and "The Queen of the Afternoon"
These were probably my least favorite stories in the book. The ideas come thick and fast, but too much so: they feel random and arbitrary (though I can't be displeased with the talking bear) rather than part of an immense universe. They're about a couple of German girls launched into space during World War II who crash back down in the far future and end up leading a not-very-interesting revolution against not-well-defined bad guys.

"Scanners Live in Vain"
Apparently I read this before, as I called it a "highlight" in an old review, but I only remembered the vaguest of outlines. I can't tell why, as this story is amazing. The difficulties of love, an incredible and unique future with a cool civilization, a terrible choice. Like the best sf, it reveals to its reader both an unknown world and something of himself. Few stories are this good. And to think that having come up with such a premise, Smith only mined it for one story-- Asimov would have kept the Scanners going with increasingly unnecessary sequels for decades.

"The Lady Who Sailed The Soul"
About Helen America, the first woman to pilot a sleeper ship through space, and her strange love story. Pretty sweet.

"When the People Fell"
Despite giving its (great) title to the collection and some strong imagery, this one doesn't have a lot to offer for some reason. As close to perfunctory as Smith's stories come.

"Think Blue, Count Two"
One of those stories that makes you hate yourself for being a human being, but in a good way. A girl who has the right personality to make anyone think she's their daughter is guarded by a telepathic mouse brain in a plastic cube.

"The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All"
This one is all right again. It gets a little goofy, but I didn't mind too much.

"The Game of Rat and Dragon"
In the future, the only way for ships in deep space to protect themselves against telepathic mind-destroying dragons is to link human telepaths to cats who fly football-sized spaceships that launch light bombs.   Yup, you read that right. Another great idea done well.

"The Burning of the Brain"
Somehow, less happens in this one than you would think.

"From Gustible's Planet"
Delightfully bonkers story about a race of aliens who inadvertently rekindle humanity's carnivorous instincts. Near-genocide has never been so hilarious.

"Himself in Anachron"
A man travels through time backwards, and Smith uses this as an excuse to mess up cause and effect. I'm surprise Steven Moffat hasn't ripped this off for Doctor Who, but it's smart.

"The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal"
This one is still "so mad it has to be brilliant."  I summarized the plot to my wife and her advisor while we were driving together, but that doesn't do it justice. Much love to the turtle people who crew Suzdal's spaceship for generations while he sleeps.

"Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!"
Good, but not as good as the title.

This is pretty similar to "The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All". One is a rewritten version of the other, but I'm not sure which way it goes. Maybe it's just because I read it earlier, but "The Colonel" was better. I'm not sure why they're both counted as in-continuity, unlike the two versions of "War No. 81-Q."

"A Planet Named Shayol"
The Instrumentality's prison-planet turns out to be the most horrifying thing I could have imagined: a planet where people are infected with a cancer that makes them grow body parts that can be harvested to use as spare organs-- and they live forever. Gross, but triumphant.

"On the Gem Planet"
The first of three stories about Casher O'Neill, a man wandering the galaxy to find the resources to reclaim his home planet from his dictator uncle. In this one, he helps some people figure out what a horse is for. There's more to than you'd expect from that description, I guess.

"On the Storm Planet"
Casher O'Neill returns in one of my favorite stories in the book, a harrowing journey into a house no one ever returns from... because no one ever wants to. The twists never stop, and Casher is a great protagonist, and he gets an ever greater companion here.

"On the Sand Planet"
The resolution to the Casher stories is not everything it could have been. There are some great moments, but then he discovers a secret telepath city which doesn't have anything to do with anything as far as I could tell. There is room for dozens of Casher adventures between "Gem Planet" and "Storm Planet"; someone should write them.

"Three to a Given Star"
Three people have their minds turned into the controls of a spaceship, a giant robot, and a terrible weapon. It's epic and heartfelt.

"Down to a Sunless Sea"
This is the only story in the book where looking at the title didn't remind when what it was about. Either it was bad, it was forgettable, or I was in a hurry because the book was almost over.

There are just a few non-Instrumentality stories at the end. "Western Science Is So Wonderful," about a Martian demon who tries to join the Chinese Communist Party but moves to Connecticut instead is the best, but the only uninteresting one is the original version of "War No. 81-Q." Despite not being set in the Instrumentality, most have the same feel, and I imagine its tiny things that keep them "out" of that continuity.

When I finished this, I immediately knew I needed to read more Cordwainer Smith; he's the first new writer I've read in a long time who provoked such a reaction. An sf great whose career was tragically short.

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