Monday, January 23, 2006

The Forest of Incandescent Bliss

I've just read Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia for the first time in several decades. Smith was one of the Great Peculiars of science fiction, producing strong, intricate, highly wrought, highly weird stories that will never be mistaken for the work of anyone else. No one else had a mind like Smith. Sometimes one has the impression that Smith's stories are translated, a bit imperfectly, from the Chinese (and indeed Chinese was his first language, and his Chinese name translates as Forest of Incandescent Bliss).


You can find the details of Smith's extraordinary life elsewhere. I want to talk about the fiction.

What surprised on this last reading me was how fresh and contemporary Smith's vision seemed. The novel was first published over forty years ago, but it deals with nearly all the elements that now make up the Standard Model for cutting-edge science fiction (though handled in a decidedly non-standard way). Smith explores the consequences of genetic manipulation, artificial intelligence, greatly increased life spans, and the clash of wildly differing cultures. His characters change their bodies with ease, and the novel includes one transgendered character who is now very happy as a boy, thank you very much.


I think Smith was writing for a twenty-first century audience all along.

Norstrilia has its flaws as a novel. It's a picaresque, filled with one damn thing after another, but no real story arc. Rather than a story arc, we have an arc of the main character's psychological development, which personally I don't find compelling. So I found myself reading the novel for the gnarly bits, the wonderful nuggets of speculation and strangeness woven into the narrative.


Smith was much better at shorter lengths, and a glance through the complete short fiction is perfect when you need a brief jolt of High Weirdness to start your day. The stories and the novel are all connected into one magnificent, eerie Future History, which seems to be dictated from the even farther future by some strange, hieratic voice that may or may not belong to Smith himself.

Smith may be an acquired taste, a idiosyncratic voice chanting the stories of an impossibly strange and distant future. Still, I can't help but think that if you don't get Smith, you probably won't get the future, either.


Cordwainer Smith appreciation page maintained by his daughter.


Speculation by Alan C. Elms concerning whether Smith was the patient in "The Jet-Propelled Couch."

Concordance to Cordwainer Smith

5 Comments:

Anonymous Tim Pratt said...

Mmm, Cordwainer Smith. I just reread Norstrilia too (I've got the 2-book version, yellowed old paperbacks of The Planet Buyer and The Underpeople). He's weirder than any New Weird. It delights me every time I meet someone who hasn't heard of him, so I can foist his books upon them.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Smith was one of the greats. I'm amused I'm employed by Johns Hopkins where he graduated and later worked. Another clue to my fondness for him is the name I use for my small press publishing: Old Earth Books.

Michael Walsh
mjw@press.jhu.edu

3:49 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

I once won the internet version of a bar bet thanks to having read Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger. A lady, with whom I later became quite close, bet me that I couldn't tell her the source of her middle name, which was C'Mell. Of course, I knew who the feline girly-girl was (without google-cheating), and to make good, she travelled to buy me a beer.

She jokingly told folks that C'Mell was a shortening of Catmelanie (which she used as her online persona up til her death... catmelanie.blogspot.com is still up, last I checked), since she felt pretty certain that no one, outside of her parents, had read Smith's work.

6:44 PM  
Anonymous Peace of mind said...

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6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This morning I checked my daugther's blog (catmelanie@blogspot.com). It's the first time I have done this in a while. I was surprised and delighted when your site came up. What a comfort it is to know that she touched your life. Traveling to buy you a beer sounds just like her. I continue to be amazed at the things she did and the people she touched. I must read Cordwainer Smith again as my birthday gift to her. Thank you so very much for giving me this needed comfort.
Gluttrell1@midsouth.rr.com

7:25 AM  

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