Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Why Should I Read?...
“The Ballad of Lost C’mell”
Cordwainer Smith, 1962
For a writer with such a small output—20-odd short stories and an episodic novel—Cordwainer Smith has been a surprisingly influential writer within sf. He is one of those writers, like Vance and Lafferty, who is sui generis. There is no-one who writes remotely like Smith; and one Smith is probably about the right number.
“The Ballad of Lost C’mell” is perhaps not Smith’s best story (that has to be “Scanners Live in Vain”) but it is representative of his mature, finished, voice. The plot—not that we read Smith for plot—revolves around C’mell, a woman engineered from cat DNA (I did say don’t worry about the plot) and her role in the rebellion of the ‘underpeople’. C’mell, a girlygirl (a kind of courtesan) at once intrigues against and falls in love with Lord Jestocost, a representative of the Instrumentality of Mankind, the rulers of human space who deny the rights of those derived from animal stock. Recounted as baldly as that, it sounds unremarkable, even clichĂ©d. Smith is famous as a Christian writer, but this aspect of his work is subtly integrated. What is more apparent in his attitudes and subject matter is that he is writer whose period of maturity coincided with the Civil Rights movement.
What lifts the story out of mediocrity is Smith’s extraordinary narrative voice. Most sf draws its cultural nourishment from the Western European literary model, but Smith, an accomplished Orientalist, draws at least as much on traditional Chinese techniques. The result is fiction which is at once alien, startling, beautiful, ornate. Despite the astonishingly distant narrative voice, Smith’s work is oddly engaging, and the strange love story at the heart of “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” is at once haunting and understated.
How has it influenced me?
Smith is one of those writers who defies imitation. I find a little of him goes a long way—which, since there is very little, is not a disadvantage. His style is one I have neither the capacity nor the desire to emulate, but he is a powerful illustration of just how far it is possible to develop a narrative voice. There are those who argue that the best stylists are invisible: while I understand that argument, I don’t entirely agree with it—and Smith is one of the greatest examples that for some good writers, style is the defining aspect of the work.
Lessons for the aspiring writer
Do your own thing – no matter how bizarre it seems, and regardless of whether anyone else is doing it
A highly distanced narrative voice need not result in emotionally uninvolving fiction

10 comments:

David Isaak said...

Well, you've foxed me on this one. I've never read anything by Cordwainer Smith.

It sounds as though I need to.

Tim Stretton said...

Wow! You'll love it or hate it--there's no middle ground.

There are plenty of anthologies of his short fiction - make sure you get one with "Scanners Live in Vain", "The Ballad of Lost C'mell" and "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" (sic).

Even if you don't like it, you'll find his use of narrative voice interesting.

David Isaak said...

I'm on it.

And I totally agree that narrative distance doesn't preclude emotional profundity. Faulkner has passages that are in very tight POV, but I think much of his most moving writing is in the high narrative voice, way above the characters.

David Isaak said...

PS to previous--

Just ordered a volume that collects all his short stories.

Aon Amazon, it had 50 customer reviews. The average rating? Five stars.

Yikes.

Anonymous said...

I first encountered Smith as an eleven year old a few years before he expired in 1966.

I was already a reader of adult SF when I came across "No,no, not Rogov" in the late, lamented IF magazine. I had gone through Leinster, Simak, Sturgeon, Asimov, Bradbury, Clark, Fritz Leiber and, of course, Heinlein [cleaning out the John V.L. Pruyn Library's SF section, in the process]. Smith was distinctly different--even from Leiber who's style was as differently, wonderfully mysterious as mysterious could get.

"Rogov" and, immediately after that, "Golden, she was, oh, oh, oh" confirmed an addiction for Smith that I've thankfully never shaken. I've never met a writer, much less an SF writer, who's managed to make the mysterious and, often, grotesque so compellingly appealing [Galaxy Magazine's use of Virgil Findley to illustrate many of Smith's stories is so apropos--if you know Findley].

lapidus48 said...

Sorry for the "anonymous." Had trouble with the sign-in. And, the Pruyn Library is located in Albany, NY [and a shout-out to Mrs. Wilcox, the tall, stately gray-haired librarian who let me have the run of the library, starting at age 8].

Tim Stretton said...

Welcome, lapidus48!

Smith sadly seems to have receded into history these days. Very few people my age (40) or younger seem to have heard of him. With such a small output and idiosyncratic style, I suppose it's inevitable.

The word "unique" is overused--but for Smith it's entirely appropriate.

Jon said...

Cordwainer Smith, eh? I'm pretty sure I've seen his novel floating around my local library. I'll have to take a serious look at that.

Tim Stretton said...

I haven't read the novel, but I've a hunch his gift works best at the shorter length. He has pretty minimal interest in characterisation, but somehow still manages to make his work poignant.

Anonymous said...

It is as stated a very episodic novel. Not to read it is to miss "the boy who bought Old Earth", The Shop of your Heart's Desire" etc